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The psychedelic sounds of Black Light Radio
WBOI show digs deep into psychedelia and prog-rock
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
The scene: a hang out for teenagers circa 1973. Maybe it’s a basement, maybe it’s an attic, maybe it’s a bedroom, but wherever it is, the lights are low, there are posters covering the wall, there’s an LP spinning on the turntable, there’s a certain smell in the air…
That’s the kind of ambiance Morrison Agen and Scott Simpson aim to create with Black Light Radio, a show they host from 10 PM to midnight every Thursday night on WBOI 89.1.
But you’re not going to hear the Top 40. Black Light Radio focuses on psychedelic and progressive rock obscurities, mainly from 1968 – 1975. And it’s all vinyl. “I would love to say we’re trying to be nerdy hipsters about it, but the reality is that vinyl is the format most of this stuff is available on,” says co-host Morrison Agen, who owns Neat, Neat, Neat Records. “We do it out of necessity.”
Calling some of this stuff “forgotten gems” isn’t quite accurate; these are bands and artists that even many hardcore fans of the genre never even knew about in the first place, artists from Europe’s fervid prog/psych scene of the era. “There was a lot of stuff going on in that genre all over the world,” says Agen. “Italy had their own scene in the early 70s, Germany had a big scene… lots of interesting, unique stuff that you don’t hear much about.”
You want names? Try Secret Oyster. Or Amon Duul. Or Ultimate Spinach. Agen says that maybe — maybe — you’ll hear a little something by Yes or Rush, but… “It won’t be ‘Roundabout.’ It won’t be ‘Tom Sawyer.’ If we do plays those bands, it’ll be something that you may not even recognize as being by them. We’re really trying to get into the stuff no one touches.”
It’s a rich and deep vein that Black Light Radio mines for their playlist, and the bulk of it comes from the private record collection of Scott Simpson, a self-described “old metal head” who for the past 15-20 years has been scouring the bins for these records. “A lot of the American psychedelic stuff has been reissued, but there’s quite a few out there that I’ve dug out of dusty bins for 25 cents or a dollar, took it home and listened to it and it just blew me away,” he says. “I figure if I’m into it for a quarter, I can’t lose. I’ve found quite a few goodies that way.”
Simpson is also an avid jazz fan, and says there was something very jazz-like about the psychedelic/prog scene of the era. “A lot of the bands we play only put out one or two albums, and then these people would go on to other bands and play with those for an album,” he says. “Then they’d split up and get with the bass player and do another album… it’s kind of all over the place and pretty hard to keep track of, but it’s just the way that genre was.”
As we said, some of the older bands you’ll hear on Black Light Radio — like Can or Catapilla — aren’t completely lost to obscurity, and have seen their catalogs re-issued on CD at some point. Even one of Simpson’s favorites, Secret Oyster, got the re-mastered/re-issued treatment a while ago; maybe there’s a record company somewhere in the world that put out some of these other bands on CD. Odds are, Simpson, wouldn’t know or care — though he’s still a few years short of 40, he doesn’t even own a CD player. Never has. “I just hate the sound of the damn things,” he laughs. “In 1988, my best friend bought a CD player and a big stack of CDs for Christmas. We sat down listened to them, and it was the worst-sounding thing I had ever heard in my life. I couldn’t stand them. The artwork is gone, the whole ambiance. I’d rather listen to a cassette tape. At least it’s analog.”
“I’m a jazz nut, and I’ve heard these jazz CDs — $50, $60 CDs — that are supposed to be the highest quality there is, and they just sounded terrible,” he adds. “Digital music just does not transfer well in certain genres.”
Black Light Radio occasionally goes beyond the ’68 -’75 era to offer up some newer stuff in the genre. There’s a healthy underground neo-psychedelic movement happening now — Agen namechecks Heaven Gateway Drugs as an excellent homegrown example of where the genre is in 2012 — and Agen and Simpson say they like to draw connections between eras and bands.
Even if they stuck to the older era, Simpson claims they’re not likely to run out of material any time soon. “There’s a lot of stuff in my collection that I haven’t even touched yet,” he says. “It’s almost harder for me to decide what not to play.”
And as far as just playing vinyl goes, Agen says they’ve had some interesting reactions. Occasionally, he says, on some of the older records, you’ll hear this very, very faint surface noise, and it seems to strike a chord in some listeners. “They’ll tell us ‘that’s a sound I haven’t heard in a really long time. You guys are actually playing records on there’.”
Black Lights Radio airs from 10 PM – midnight, Thursdays on WBOI 89.1 FM.
For more information, you can find Black Light Radio on facebook.