The Kaleidoscope (from the US, not to be confused with the band of the same name from the UK) is an oddity in the history of psychedelic rock: pulling in ideas from everywhere imaginable, they fused trippy psychedelia, sunny pop, snaky Middle Eastern melodies, heavy rock, and more into a concoction they played with humor, conviction and an unerring technical aplomb that belied a seriousness and dedication behind the cartwheeling exterior.
Led by vocalist Sol Feldthouse, whose piercing but versatile voice always seemed to have a wry smile to it, the original Kaleidoscope’s debut album, Side Trips, contained not only some of the best, most unique psychedelia of that year but did nearly everyone else one better, by playing very non-rock styles of music and making the whole thing not just palatable, but entertaining and even instructional.
The band’s instrumentalists were eager to get their hands on anything that had an interesting sound, and for every every guitar lick and drum beat on Side Trips you’ll find a warbling oud or a gypsy fiddle. The band was certainly a product of its time, evidenced by the stunning and convincing psychedelic sounds of songs such as “If The Night” and “Keep Your Mind Open”, but also had no interest in being constrained by the trappings of the then-new music.
Most of the songs on this album are unique — meaning, they don’t even sound like each other. They do, however, all sound like they come from the same band, and the zigzagging around musical styles is never showy or distracting. There is a uniformity to the disc, and even when the band began (as many bands of the era) to slowly evolve from spacy psychedelia into something else, the Kaleidoscope kept most of the sensibilities displayed on their debut. Later albums such as A Beacon From Mars and Incredible! kept the bar high, and the band’s obvious enjoyment of their own music kept them from burning out or getting bored.
Major chart success, however, was never in the cards for the band, for even when the group’s music happened to overlap with the sensibilities of the record-buying public, they didn’t seem to really care and certainly never capitalized on it. Which helps make Side Trips a true lost classic; most people who would love it have never heard (or heard of) it, but it is luckily still available.
The album is short, its ten songs totaling about 27 minutes, but the manic pace of its changes and huge range of musical styles rank it as one of the top ten classics of the early psychedelic era. (The band would keep things very efficient and quick on this debut; it would finally stretch out for lengthy psychedelic explorations on 1968’s A Beacon From Mars.) Nobody else sounded like this, and most bands never had any songs quite this adventurous and well-played. Get ready — if you hear this once, you’re likely to want to hear it another 100 times over.
Kaleidoscope — Side Trips: Track-by-track review
1. “Egyptian Gardens”
Side Trips opens with one of the greatest, most enveloping and fun pieces of music of the entire decade of the 60s.
With its Middle Eastern instrumentation and melodies mixed haphazardly with the crazed sensibilities of a young, psychedelic group of musicians, and lead singer Sol’s truly one-of-a-kind delivery of the English verses and speaking-in-tongues wail of a chorus, “Egyptian Gardens” is startlingly daring, curiously unignorable, wildly entertaining; a complete success.
It starts with the odd, archaic sound of an oud, playing a simple little descending melody to set the tone, and the rest of the tanked up band quickly jump in the fire with it. Immediately they have hit their groove (a fortunate thing, as the entire track is barely over three minutes), strongly, as the beat forces itself upon you, leaving you unable to sit still. You may be able, if you’re particularly strong-willed, to refrain from actually getting up and dancing, but if your body doesn’t at least rock side to side in your chair, check your pulse for signs of life. A tambourine rings each beat of the jig.
And then, that voice: Sol Feldthouse, one of the great and instantly recognizable voices in rock, begins the loopy tale of going to a dance (or a bar) and becoming entranced by a woman dancing on stage. Sol’s adenoidal baritone, cutting confidently through the somehow soft-edged cacophony of his ensemble, even at this early stage in his career was versatile, carefree, and bemused by its own lack of conventional beauty. Veering between singing and speaking conversationally (often jumping almost unnoticed back and forth within the same line), his tale seems to go nowhere, like many a fuzzy night at the bar, but there are plenty of directionless adventures along the way:
So I traipsed up the redhead and said,
“Gee babe, but you’re nice”
She smiled and stuck her arms around me and said,
“Sol baby, say it twice”
The most notable feature of “Egyptian Gardens”, on first blush, is Sol’s long, carefree wail, a commanding thing that represents the woman’s dance specifically and the intoxicating allure of this night at the ‘gardens’ generally. Even to this day, such melodies have rarely been heard in western rock music; in 1967, certainly, this was something so new as to be baffling.
The other impressive feature of the track is that, though short, it packs in 3 or 4 striking melodies, a sneakily complicated composition that, though based mostly on potboiler, faux-Jewish melodies of convincing but perhaps not strict authenticity, manages to rock along without tripping up the able band in the least. Rather than featuring a bridge, as many songs do, “Egyptian Gardens” seems to feature nothing but bridges, each linking a short musical piece that seem like children of the parent song — each related, with the same hurtling rhythm, but each taking turns vying for the attention of daddy Sol.
If you don’t like this song, you probably won’t like much of what the Kaleidoscope did. Although their career, and Side Trips especially, is far more eclectic than this one track would suggest, it does contain the blueprint for much of the band’s ensuing work. With its off-the-wall (but not random) instrumentation and reckless fusion, not to mention Sol’s compellingly humorous and relaxed vocals, “Egyptian Gardens” is the Kaleidoscope hitting a grand slam on its very first plate appearance.
2. “If The Night”
This song is dark and psychedelic, sounding not unlike a Doors song in parts. Very short (under 2 minutes), it features verses of a chiaroscuro, minor-chord melodrama and sudden rough-edged, explosive choruses that feature the whole band singing loudly, in well-planned and mostly-adhered to melodic harmony, the efficiently succinct phrases that comprise the track’s addled-cum-meaningless lyrics:
Life for you is cheap
While my mind’s
Sol again is the lone singer on the verses, keeping his melody simple and (as if his vocal chords would allow him any other option) his tone austere. The instrumentation on “If The Night” is usual rock band-style, with a harpsichord stringing everything along in the not-so-distant background.
The track, though generally creepy and dark, also manages to be loud, and seems to have overloaded the recording equipment, a general feature of this album that gives the whole thing a thinness that actually serves to allow the listener to pick out specific instruments and appreciate the inspired arrangements, while simultaneously merging everything into a unified, clanging onslaught.
Looking back on this song from this remove, years later, it is one of the most conventionally psychedelic songs on the album, but we shouldn’t forget that it, like all the music on this album, was ground-breaking at the time, and thanks to the force of the conviction of its instigators, it has aged very well, even if it is only a minor song on this great disc. One suspects, with this album, that removing any of the parts would detract from the whole; there are no true throwaway or unnecessary songs here.
3. “Hesitation Blues”
This is the Kaleidoscope’s very loose, drunk-sounding version of an old blues song also covered by Hot Tuna, among others.
The instrumentation has been pared way down, very simple, and the song is quieter than most others on Side Trips. Simple clip-clop percussion (sounding like someone tapping on logs and tin cans) and a fuzzy, very closed-sounding electric guitar propel it along, with a more trebly guitar, mixed lower and played at a much higher register, add dashes of color to the lazily zonked-out, mostly group-sung vocals.
Well if the river was whiskey
And I was a dog
I’d fly to the bottom
And I’d never come up
It occasionally dips into a short guitar break, the 6-string stepping up to the mic to relieve the singers but keep the feel consistent: a hot summer day in the south. Sol’s silly, exaggeratedly-enunciated parodies of traditional encouragement to the band (“Sa-wing it.”) serve as gentle reminders that, while the Kaleidoscope genuinely loves the music it plays, it isn’t taking itself too seriously, seizing any opportunity to just have a good time at the expense of authenticity.
Another of the standout tracks on Side Trips, “Please” is a very simple, somewhat conventional 1967-era song, with a sunny, ringing melody, brushed drums, and restrained vocals, which again feature the band harmonizing around Sol’s lead.
The lyrics are a call to be left alone to do ones own thing, similar in spirit to the songs of hundreds of young groups of this era. Moving through its numerous chord changes, the song is gentle, and during its choruses really manages to soar to climactic heights.
Missing from the song is any sense of jocularity, making it something of an oddity on the album. If the band was still wet behind the ears enough to feel the need to play it safe (not suggested by the other, more adventurous tracks on this debut album) it is fortunate for us (and impressive) that they still could craft something as beautiful as “Please”. Whatever they did, they did it with an unerring panache.
You don’t need to say a word…
Just stand by me
5. “Keep Your Mind Open”
Something to keep the lysergic crowd interested, “Keep Your Mind Open” is a lovely, distant-sounding piece that features a kind of slow motion raga broken at close intervals by a sudden drop in the music with electronically echoed vocals floating out into space over the edge of the cliff.
Again, an instrument sounding like an electrified oud plays the beautiful melody, and the band plays lazily behind it. Unlike the other songs on this album, the entirety of “Keep Your Mind Open” is sung by a chorus, rather than “Sol plus a chorus”. The simple vocal melody, repeated, is a fine example of the new musical (and mental, and emotional, and social, and…) explorations taking place through the use of LSD at the time.
Like every other song on this album, this track is short, less than 2:30, but even though it comes in then leaves quickly and quietly, it features a very strange counterpoint throughout, audible mostly toward the very end: when the music drops and the voice continues to echo, we hear violent sounds of gunfire buried in the soft mix.
The track, not noticeably at first, is a strong critique of war; specifically, one presumes, the Vietnam war. Soldiers, the lyrics lament, are pushed around like chess pieces by the architects of war, with no thought of their humanity or of the “sound of weeping wives”. (In this it anticipates Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”, beating that classic song from The Dark Side Of The Moon at its own rhetorical game by a full five years.) It also extends the mournful, terrifyingly emotionless anti-war sentiments of the Byrds’ “I Come And Stand At Every Door” from the previous year’s Fifth Dimension.
“Keep Your Mind Open” evokes the most complex emotions on the entire disc, due in large part to its uniqueness on the album, its pathetically impotent remorse, and the juxtaposition of the sound effects with the especially gentle, inebriated feel of the music.
And to pack all this in in less than two minutes and thirty seconds — what a trip.
6. “Pulsating Dream”
A rather color-by-numbers psychedelic carnival song, this very brief side trip features a chorus of harmonized vocals from top to bottom, following a maniacally adventurous melody over raucous instrumentation led by furious bursts of rat-a-tat drumming, queasy guitar leads and bells ringing incessantly.
It’s fun, of course; most of what the Kaleidoscope did, when not quietly exploring their inner selves, was to some degree silly and fun. This song seems to simply be about the joyous buoyancy of feeling free — at a big afternoon party in a park, perhaps, or in a large room with other like-minded people getting completely lost in loud, exhilarating, sweaty music.
And, a mere 1:50 after it began, it’s all over! But it doesn’t matter, the song’s most important message sticks in the mind:
Our world can yet be
7. “Oh Death”
Along with “Egyptian Gardens”, “Oh Death” is one of the very best tracks on the album, in some ways exceeding even the musical accomplishments of that song.
An inventive cover of an old folk tune (recorded by many, notably banjoist Dock Boggs), the Kaleidoscope’s version of “Oh Death” is, in a way most songs aren’t, perfect. All of its elements come together precisely as they should; the instrumentation is creepy; the pace throughout appropriate; the vocals absolutely astonishing.
A single droning note, sounding like a broken electronic violin, persists through the whole song, mixed to the front and laying the inescapable pallor of death over the proceedings. Other instruments, blended into a remorseful single unit, march in a background procession as short, echo-y clicks go off here and there and an out-of-tune 12-string acoustic guitar adds a cruel melody — cruel in that it is so jarring, but provides a structure without which the song would crumple, deflated. Death personified.
From this nightmarish scene, Sol calls out from his death bed. Following the original song’s harrowing lyrics nearly to a T, he asks for a cold rag for his head, and babbles feverishly about the physical and metaphysical worlds, which will, for him, soon merge in a way he can not understand but must anticipate anyway. Just like that 12-string — you’d do anything to make it go away, but you know it has to be this way. You can almost see him, sweating profusely on his white sheets, his family gathered around him, powerless.
Sol offers his best vocals of the album here, most of the time singing in a very low register which gives the song a sinister feel. The song has two roles: the lower voice Sol uses is for Death, the higher notes are the useless cries of the dying man. When the singer suddenly jumps up into a high register, the change recalls the manic throes of someone slipping away and being powerless to alter anything about it.
In the final end, Sol’s voice goes to its highest notes so far, repeating yet again his plea but with an urgency not found in the previous choruses:
Oh, OH Death!
Can’t ya spare me over ’til another year??
Death doesn’t answer of course, not in words. No, the track just ends after this last cry, leaving only that one droning note, which has been present throughout and which outlasts all else, hanging on for a few more seconds and then dropping out itself. A calamitous silence follows — the mute shock before grief shows up.
Pretty heady stuff, especially for 1967. When Camper Van Beethoven recorded their own excellent version of this song on 1988’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, they self-consciously copied the Kaleidoscope version almost note-for-note.
8. “Come On In”
In the tradition of early rock and roll like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, this is a man leering over a young woman, trying to persuade her to come into his house so the defiling may commence.
Come on in
There ain’t nobody home but me
Well it’s cold outside
And you’re over 18
It’s an amusing performance, since the band isn’t old enough to actually be the horny older guy narrating the song, so Sol is merely adopting the role for fun. His sloppy attempts at convincing the girl, while never resolved one way or another in the song, are humorous in their presumed ineffectiveness (thought he does apparently get her indoors, so who knows, maybe things went his way after all).
Take off your shirt and put it on the chair
Take off your shoes and give your feet some air
One can almost hear Jimbo from the Simpsons, trying to escalate the removal of clothing with Bart’s babysitter: “Man, now my pants are chafing me!”
The music is extremely bright and lively, recalling a kind of post-modern ragtime played with rock instruments, and again the chorus harmonizes behind Sol, who for one relishes this chance to be so direct and gleefully perverted.
“Come On In” is a good example of the Kaleidoscope being unprejudiced about where their musical influences come from — they just borrow parts from different genres, slap them together, and run with it, never looking back. Fun and adventurous, this song is a riot.
9. “Why Try”
One of the louder and more deranged songs on Side Trips, this track actually plays it cool during its intro and verses. This is a smokescreen, though: during the choruses, in classic Kaleidoscope style, the band latches onto a soaring harmonic rocketship, and barely hangs onto it as it careens through the sky.
The intro is very similar to that of “Egyptian Gardens”, with an unaccompanied oud playing a descending melody, over which Sol begins a wordless, melody-matching vocal part that’s all stylish scene-setting. The band easily slips into a chugging little beat, and the lead singer, particularly adenoidal this time around, delivers words derived from the same muse as Bob Dylan’s vicious “Like A Rolling Stone” — hateful, sneering and dismissive.
So far, so good; up until now, the band is playing it rather safe. Then, of course, the aforementioned chorus comes in, with the band members’ “ahhhhhhs” blending into an almost-in tune cacophony, a wall of sound built not of overdubs or echoes, but of volume. Sol, when singing solo during the verses, sounds not quite sober and not altogether friendly, and when you put several voices of a similar ilk together and turn up the knobs past the limitations of the recording equipment… well, you get something rather spectacular.
One of the longer songs on the album, at nearly (gasp!) 4 minutes, the band stretches out and enjoys itself here.
the band shouts at its own Ms. Lonely.
Forget it all!
10. “Minnie The Moocher”
A cover of the old song made famous by Cab Calloway in the 30s and 40s, this is a fantastic way to end Side Trips, allowing the Kaleidoscope to drag yet another influence out of left field into their weird version of rock ‘n’ roll, while at the same time giving the band a vehicle to engage in some more sure-handed instrumental eclecticism and the singers a chance to have an absolute blast.
Sol and the band recreate the “hi de hi de hi” call-and-response parts of the original, and also manage to drag a Middle Eastern-sounding violin through the middle of everything, just because they can (and because it fits seamlessly). Clocking in at a head-spinning 2:20, “Minnie the Moocher” stays, as all the songs on this album, just long enough to make its point and get out, leaving a distinct aftertaste of something amazing — a song, album and band at once metallic, goofy, weird, funny, eclectic, serious and adventurous. “I don’t know what they’re on about… but I want to be a part of it!”
Side Trips by Kaleidoscope
“If The Night”
“Keep Your Mind Open”
“Come On In”
“Minnie The Moocher”