Welcome to the everchanging landscape of early 21st Century musical excavation. Those most active in the field at this late date have taken a quantum leap forward from the honorable tradition of reissuing old classics and reassembling crackly discs for well distilled compilations, to the even loftier pursuit of unveiling hitherto unheard master tapes to propel into the ears of a listening public that in its most innocent form is, collectively, a babe in the woods, funnel-eared and hungry for nourishment from high potency sounds of the past, and at its most malignant, a carefully guarded coterie of heard-it-all cynics that discredit and doubt anything that hasn’t already been lauded many times over in previous generations’ ego-elevated ink blots, or listed in price guides as having been pressed in x year, in y quantity, and having sold for z sums at Sotheby’s auctions or the like. Fully cognizant contemporary musicologists, particularly those familiar with the current state of 1960s underground rock exhumation, know full well that only a small portion of the sea of music created during that decade (as well as the ‘70s) was recorded at all (compared to today’s status quo of “record every fart and immortalize it” pile of product oxidizing in the CD junkyard), as so much of past decades’ musical outrage has vanished into the musky air of nightclubs, chance encounters at teen dances, barbecue scented backyards and oil stained cement slabs. A significant but nearly unquantifiable amount of music exists on one-of-a-kind acetates and slowly eroding miles of decomposing magnetic tapeworms in unlabeled boxes; the existence of said sounds threatened with the passage of time and gray matter into the dust and unmarked grave sites of invisibility.
Praise be that lifetime Minnesota resident, Michael “Lee” Yonkers, wasn’t so despondent that his Fall ’68 recorded album, Microminiature Love, wasn’t released as planned, as he could have easily thrown the tapes into the Mississippi River in a fit of frustration and watched them sink into the murk, or float Huck Finn like to a destination beyond the rim of any possible context, understanding or comprehension. Nope, when his deal with local label Candy Floss (which released the famed ’68 underground rock LP, Trip Thru Hell, by C.A. Quintet) and a subsequent and even more tenuous arrangement with NYC’s Sire label fell through, the Yonkster sat on the tapes until he started getting inquiring phone calls nearly 30 years later, first from original session engineer Steve Longman for permission for inclusion on a 2LP compilation of Dove Studio recordings, Free Flight, and then, fueled by exposure to that document, Minnesotan musicologist, Clint Simonson.
Simonson heard the two Yonkers cuts included on the aforementioned compilation, taken from a mislabeled acetate (“Puppeting” was mistakenly identified as “Microminiature Love”), and those tracks blew him away to such a degree, he made it his mission to find (the still local yet ever reclusive) Yonkers and fully extricate this well hidden serpent of sound. So it came to pass in 2002, with an earthshaking LP only release of this lost monster, now expanded with a remarkably similar sounding ’69 recording session (the last six cuts on this disc, culled from a professional Crown tube model reel-to-reel tape document made in Yonkers’ parents’ basement approximately six months after the Dove studio recordings). The seven tracks that made up the original Microminiature Love LP were recorded in one session in the Fall of ’68 at Dove studios in a scant one hour’s time. Yonkers recalls “we just set up in the studio like it was a live show, no vocal or drum booths…. (Engineer) Steve Longman had to put a rubber mat under my speaker because it kept ’walking’ away from the microphone (since) it was vibrating so much. With the exception of a couple of false starts, we just played the songs in the order we played them live, and used the first take on all of them.” Despite the spartan session, the long hours Yonkers spent sculpting his sound via homemade equipment were the primary reason the recording sounds so unique today.
Yonkers’ journey through sound exploration with new and unusual equipment evolved parallel to the rapid fire evolution of technology at a time when a host of dynamic Twin Cities groups were pushing boundaries -- the Trashmen, Novas, Castaways, Underbeats, Accents, Calico Wall and T.C. Atlantic (“Great!”, recalls Yonkers) -- in tandem with his own development through early groups the Pharoahs (surf rock circa 1964-‘65) and Michael and the Mumbles (keyboard based frat rock circa 1965-‘67 that served as the birthing ground for some of the material offered here) eventually evolved into the vibrato-laden tonalities that christened the Michael Yonkers Band in late ’67, as the Mumbles’ matching vests and ties no longer fit the new sounds. Fueled by a hunger to go beyond what was most readily available to copyists (the ever present Maestro fuzz box used in the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was returned to the music shop pronto after he deemed it lacking), Yonkers experimented with a Boss Tone mounted inside his Fender Telecaster guitar. He also constructed a unit he called the Fuzz’n Bark, a distortion box he sold to local musicians like R&B stalwart Willie Weeks, earning him a rep among sonic tech geeks. Yonkers further extended this aesthetic by building a Theremin from a PIAA kit (confusing many about the legendary antenna reportedly sticking out of his guitar at the studio -- it was actually the Theremin protruding from his guitar case!), then developing his own “Supervibe” vibrato unit. He also employed a homemade tape delay mechanism, combining it with Steve Longman’s use of the Dove Studios’ in-house echoplex for the recording of “Boy In The Sandbox”, creating the stunning sonic explosion you hear at the conclusion of that cut. Yonkers also recalls Longman using a custom made plate-style reverb unit, as well as some in-house phasing; the icing on the cake being the flashing lights built into Yonks’ guitar that produced spurious clicking sounds which he integrated into this rapidly emerging and potent sonic stew.
Happenstance provided some blessed unhinging of Yonkers’ musical voice, as toward the tail end of the Michael and the Mumbles era, his guitar fell off its stand while performing, jarring it into an open tuning he incorporated into that evening’s live set. Utilizing this new paradigm, Yonkers honed the sounds into a structured set of off-key tonalities that spread to his vocal style, in a sense falling on his head and standing up speaking a different language.
Despite many run-ins with local club owners (“We were seldom invited back for a second show, if we were even lucky enough to finish a set without having the plug pulled!”), the hungry Minneapolis audiences of the time were in some cases inspired to “pogo” up and down on the dance floor during particularly raucous sets, effectively killing the co-habitant relationship between lowest common denominator, unambitious cover-tune bands and maximized profits from liquor sales. One unlikely welcome haven for the band was the Robbinsdale Teen Center, a large hall located above a local police station. Yonkers recalls that both attendant crowds and police loved them! Michael’s art school background added to the live experience, as he had been constructing inflatable sculptures for his “Happening” environments that comprised his art projects at the University of Minnesota, and incorporated them into MYB live sets, climaxing with him climbing into a 30 foot long balloon and spray painting it on the inside, thus psychedelicizing the plasti-scene to ultimate effect, and further alienating the few clubs willing to book the band.
Though Yonkers acknowledged some willful subversive intent with the live shows, he and his bandmates (Tom Wallfred on bass and brother Jim Yunker on drums) were still, at heart, wide-eyed children of the times, attending the Love-ins happening in nearby Loring Park, wearing ponchos and love beads and sharing one memorable gig with popular local psychedelic group, the Paisleys (at Dania Hall, where the crowds were often a mix of Hell’s Angels (grease monkeys) and Hippies (college kids), co-existing relatively peacefully at opposite ends of the hall), whose classic Abbey Road swipe, “The Wind”, was “heavier and longer, with more solos than their LP version”, recalls Michael. The MYB even did a gig opening for the Litter at the “Big Top” for local music, the New City Opera House, in ’68. Yonkers also attended some of the sessions for the C.A. Quintet’s Trip Thru Hell album, though the Quintet and engineer Longman regarded the MYB sound as far more extreme.
While local heroes the Litter delivered the goods via supercharged, yet fairly straight laced (even slick at times) covers of the Who (and other cutting edge British groups’ material), those same influences mutated in the Yonkers Band sound in less obvious ways. After several listens, “Microminiature Love” had me hearing echoes of the Who’s John Entwistle penned and sung novelty number from ’66, “Boris The Spider”, as “MML” serves as a de facto love paen from the Spider’s perspective, weaving pendulum-like on its gossamer strand, reaching longingly toward its human exterminator like a moth to flame, approaching imminent death as its crystal, mechanically reduced yet profoundly defiant world is crushed beyond recognition.
“Kill the Enemy”, mocking religious self-righteousness and the inescapability of the Vietnam War, could fit neatly next to (Texas-based temporal contemporaries) Red Crayola’s “War Sucks” as a blaring anti-war anthem, as both songs share the same theme, and even possess a similarly eerie knife-slicing-through-silence potency that impregnates the air with a statically charged, arid and dystopian vision that serves as keen awareness of a world any potential draftee would loathe to experience. “Boy In The Sandbox” rides the tonally suspended, echo-laden and slightly distended six string rails like the Pink Floyd circa “Lucifer Sam”, exploding like a lead boot on a well hidden landmine with an echoplexed anarchy that would have left late ‘70s New Yawk no wave group Red Transistor’s jaws agape if they had been around to hear it. “Returning” spins its spell like a prayer-chant mocking of an unrequited love’s overriding denial, assaulting with a vengeance then waning as the illusory, flickering and briefly attained dream-victory fades. “Scat Jam” (from the ’69 session) ends our program with what Yonkers recalls is a very accurate representation of the MYB live sound, showing some Butterfield Blues Band inspiration not too dissimilar to the West Coast-style ballroom jams of the time.
to record to this day, despite a tragic and debilitating back injury in
1971 (and subsequent, nearly crippling complications from invasive
diagnostic procedures of the time), self-releasing five LPs worth of
folk-tinged material in the mid-‘70s, before focusing on
dance-as-therapy to alleviate his back pain and find some piece of mind
with his injured body.
There you have it, another neat and tidy pocket-sized sonic bomblet to disturb the neighbors with. Give it the requisite decibels, and don’t throw away that dusty reel-to-reel laying in your uncle’s garage before checking with your local musicologist.
~ Karl Ikola