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One: It Started With A Little Kiss

My relationship with Giant Crab began on the Internet—don’t they all these days? In what is essentially my standard mode of locomotion, I stumbled upon a blog post on the ‘Net, which I contend brings out the OCD in all its users. A search for a photo of Jeff Beck turned into seeking all available versions of “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” (an anomalous entry in Beck’s early catalog, by the way, one that almost certainly was recorded at the insistence of producer, Mickie Most, always hungry for a hit, however ill-suited it may have been for the artist).

Hi Ho Silver Lining Ad - Giant Crab

In addition to a version of “Hi Ho Silver Lining” by The Attack, which barely predated Beck’s, there was a result that pointed to what seemed to be an l.p. called A Giant Crab Comes Forth, which sounded like the title of an American International monster film I’d somehow managed to overlook. Captivating and evocative, that title led me to a music blog entry with the album’s track list, band members, and cover art.

And, man, what an album cover. Muted shades of blue, a crab outline subsuming a disc of yellow and red rays, a circle within a circle, a blazing red crab within, and that title floating above it all. Imagine strolling into the heavily-patchoulied air of the record shop in November, 1968, to find this wonder staring you in the face:

Giant Crab-Comes Forth front

What an experience it must have been, holding this album in your hands, shrink-wrapped, fresh from the UNI Records factory (which surely was adorned just as one of their record labels, in a vortex of bright yellow, pink, blue, and green bands that seemed to be disappearing down the spindle hole, a whirl of color that could induce vertigo even when it was at rest).

giant_crab_ESP label

My imagination had to do a lot of heavy lifting when it came to Giant Crab. In the words of the blogger whose post originally hipped me to the album, “i got nothing on these guys.” The blogger’s comments about the album were so spirited, they could have been penned for the original l.p. jacket by some UNI PR flack: “… this recording is amazing … tons of fuzz & organ & some brass! … the drum sound on this is amazing , i love it … the vocals are really good, great harmonies … this has sunshine & shadows.”
All of which made me more intrigued about this “real trippy” obscurity made up of “sunshine and shadows.” The original blog post was already years old, though, dating back to 2006, and although I will admit to clicking the link, the download file was long gone. And so, despite all the vaunted accessibility of the Internet, the album proved as elusive as it was mysterious, and increasingly desirable.

What we always want most is that we can’t have, and if that isn’t the record collector’s mantra, what is? My quest for Giant Crab was long and, per my usual mode of progress, circuitous. The trail led to many dead ends before finally leading me back to the beginning.

The band itself can trace its origins back to the warship in the Pacific Ocean, which again conjures visions of an American International picture, (admittedly, not a difficult conjuring act for those of my pop-cultural background). Grainy (black and white, naturally) stock footage of a Navy destroyer steaming toward an unseen destination. Sailors on the bridge, passing a pair of binos between them. The captain (played by Paul Birch) squints into the distance and growls to his chief petty officer (Don Durant, or maybe “Touch” Connors, if the script calls for wisecracks), and growls, “I tried to tell ‘em this would happen if they detonated the bomb out here, but you can’t tell the brass nothin’!”

As the camera pans over along their line of sight, a tremendous crack of thunder, an otherworldly bestial howl, and the title explodes upon the screen:

Giant Crab AIP logo 3

Rather than rising up out of the irradiated waters of the Pacific, in reality, our Giant Crab eventually came forth from the experiences of a sailor (who was neither Paul Birch nor “Touch” Connors) during World War II.
In the estimation of his youngest son, Ray (now known as Brian), the band’s story began with Joseph Orosco stationed in the Pacific during the war. His guitar helped him pass the interminable hours at sea, “jamming with the other sailors on their ship during their free time,” between outbreaks of horrific combat. Ernie, his eldest, recalls their father’s description of looking down at “Marine bodies floating in the ocean” as he went ashore at Iwo Jima, and looking up to witness the famed raising of the American flag.
A number of his fellow sailors also enjoyed the diversion of making music, swapping songs from their home turf and backgrounds. Due to its immense popularity and adaptability to acoustic guitar, many of the songs Joe learned were country and western. Not that it’s at all evident in the music they would make, Brian cites the C&W that Joe learned in the Navy as an early influence on himself and his brothers.
There are many stories of those who, amidst the unfathomable horrors of war, have made pleas to their Maker to come out of the experience in one piece. As Brian recounts, Joe “asked the Lord to give him three sons, if he came back alive.” Joe wanted a family, and having found so much joy and welcome distraction from the war through his music, he wanted those boys to be musicians. “That,” says Brian, “is where our story began.”
Joseph Orosco did survive the war, and returned home to Santa Barbara. There he met Esther De Luna at a party, and the two hit it off. The two somehow found themselves singing together and, as Brian puts it, “they harmonized together … and it went on for a lifetime.” Like a scene from a post-war Hollywood romance, in a time-lapse dissolve, the couple went from singing cheek to cheek to “You may now kiss the bride.”
In fulfillment of his wartime plea, Joe and Esther had three sons, Ernest (aka Ernie), Ruben (known as Cory), and Ray (known as Brian). The Oroscos also had a girl, Elaine, ten years after Ray’s birth, who has not been part of the brothers’ musical pursuits.
Photos from that time show an attractive couple, always beaming, with the magnetism of born entertainers. Even with four kids to corral, Esther and Joe found time to assemble and lead a band, she as lead vocalist, he on guitar, with both of them harmonizing, of course. They played at parties and elsewhere around the Santa Barbara area, their sets made up of popular standards, Jazz, Latin and, drawing on Joe’s extensive shipboard repertoire, country and western selections.
When the brothers talk of this time, it is with wistfulness, and about their parents, with love and respect. These were days spent fishing off the Santa Barbara pier and, following big brother Ernie’s lead, engaging in daredevil stunts, like the pier-diving that led to stitches in Brian’s knee.
It was the “I Like Ike” era, seen in retrospect as less complex and more innocent, an age of “easy living … that it’s hard for people [today] to related to.” It was that short breather after the Korean War, before Vietnam, before JFK, before The Beatles. The times, their upbringing, and especially their parents’ values, the brothers reckon, prepared them to embark on lives as entertainers, on their own terms.
And the three recognize how fortunate they were to have grown up in a household where their musical ambitions were enabled and encouraged, with parents who clearly wanted them to pursue careers in music, but didn’t force it on them. Brian calls their parents “more than influential,” showing them by example how personally fulfilling, if not necessarily financially rewarding, music-centered lives could be. While Joe and Esther never supported the family as entertainers (and there is no indication that they tried), the joy they derived from playing and performing seemed to be reason enough to do it.
After rehearsals of Joe and Esther’s combo, young Ernie, Cory, and Brian would pick up the adults’ instruments and mimic their folks as their own make-believe band. Along with their parents’ musical influence, the boys would sneak down to the Timos Club, near downtown Santa Barbara on Anacapa Street, to soak up the R&B played by such seminal acts as the smoking-hot Johnny Otis Show. The Orosco boys, all under ten years old, would slip their ears through the door and soak up inspiration, until somebody would say, “Hey kids, get outta here!”
Before long, Ernie gave up the air guitar for the real thing, a ¾-scale, sunburst Stella acoustic the boys had long admired in the window of Bennett’s Music, which turned up under the Christmas tree. All of nine years old, he overcame his shyness to make his public debut as a musician, singing Elvis’ “Hound Dog” outside Brownie’s neighborhood market on De La Vina Street. Shy as he was, Ernie had a confident Elvis stance down cold. He not only became a performer at that tender age, Ernie immediately turned pro, the market’s owners paying him in a currency any nine year old would appreciate, popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.

bobby brown ernie brian
Ernie Orosco [center] with his first axe, a ¾-scale Stella acoustic he got for Christmas. Younger brother, Brian [r.], appears amused, while friend Bobby Brown [l.] seems intent on picking up some technique.

[c. 2013, James A. Gardner]

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Preface: A Giant Crab Comes Forth!

As a largely self-described “professional musician and critic,” music has been as much a constant part of my emotional sustenance as weekend warrior bar gigs and unpaid record reviews. So when my life started going south in 2010, with serious family illness, turmoil in my career, and the second of our sons leaving for college, I relied on the  music, as always, to help me through.

A Giant Crab Comes Forth came into my life that summer. As I tried to distract myself through outdoor labor in intense heat, Giant Crab tracks kept coming up on my MP3 player, and with each play, songs like “It Started With A Little Kiss” sank their considerable hooks further into me with their pop song craft and clever, value-added arrangements.

(What was it with that bell, though? It’s heard on at least two tracks, as if part of a secret code or perhaps a summons to some mysterious listener, or even … a monstrous creature, a giant crab!)

Image

With the transformative, elevating power of the best music, A Giant Crab Comes Forth continually buoyed my mood, always sounding like a refreshing blast of lost classic radio. Since my first exposure to the album, I have given … Comes Forth a couple hundred spins, putting it in a preferred playlist category second only to such personal essentials as Abbey Road, Pet Sounds, Forever Changes, Wheatstraw Suite, and The 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.

What I’ve learned about the musicians who made up Giant Crab has only enhanced the positive vibes put off by this album. Having musician sons myself, I found myself experiencing great empathy for Giant Crab patriarch, Joseph Orosco, too.

My life has made a near-180 degree change for the better and, while it would be overstating its role in this reversal of fortune to attribute it entirely to … Comes Forth, Giant Crab was a vital part of the soundtrack that sustained me through some hellishly bad times.

And now, from more of a hilltop perspective, A Giant Crab Comes Forth still sounds every bit as good, if not even better than it did where things looked desperate. While I would never guarantee that the music on this album will change your life, you will definitely be better off for hearing it.

A Giant Crab Comes Forth is not a ’50s sci-fi flick!

Giant Crab AIP logo 3

But it just might be the best ’60s rock and roll album you don’t own.

Among the noteworthy 1968 releases from MCA’s UNI Records imprint were “Incense and Peppermints” by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Foundations’ “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” Neil Diamond’s “Shilo,” and albums from Hugh Masekela and Larry Carlton. That year, the adventurous label also issued records by Orange Colored Sky (the band who claims to be the inspiration for The Wonders in That Thing You Do!), as well as Fever Tree (of “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” fame). It also released one by The Fun and Games, who gave us the bubblegum classic, “Grooviest Girl in the World,” with its timeless refrain: “You’re the grooviest girl in the world, and I’m a guy with impeccable taste!”

Amid all the memorable albums UNI put out that year was one with an eye-catching cover and the intriguing sci-fi title, A Giant Crab Comes Forth. Giant Crab evolved out of a popular Santa Barbara, California area band, Ernie & The Emperors, which was formed around three brothers, Ernie, Ray, and Ruben Orosco. The band became a regional sensation, opening for national acts and eventually signing with Warner/Reprise Records. Their first single, 1965’s marvelously Merseybeat-esque “Meet Me At The Corner” (b/w “Got A Lot I Want To Say”), was their sole Warners title, released while the three were still in high school. Along with another set of brothers, Dennis and Kenny Friscia, the Oroscos formed Giant Crab, crafting a very different sound than their previous band, whose live show alternated between surf music and British beat group-styled songs.

The first of what would ultimately be a pair of UNI albums, A Giant Crab Comes Forth defies easy categorization, which helps explain how it still sounds fresh decades after its release and how the original LP became a sought-after cult item, still changing hands for impressive prices. There’s Rascals-like, blue-eyed soul, rich vocal harmonies, prominent use of inventive horn charts, guitar riffs, and pyrotechnics. Also present are psychedelic effects, a wide variety of keyboard flavors, including jazzy vibes, funky clavinet, and even the prog-rock sound of the Mellotron, some of the earliest U.S. use of the tape-replay keyboard.

From the first groove, Giant Crab sets an unusual tone, opening with a “news flash” recited over cinematic music and crashing thunder. The portentous reporter’s announcement sounds like a promo for a ‘50s sci-fi film that, not coincidentally, incorporates all the album’s song titles. This somewhat confusing intro makes more sense when you consider that it was anything-goes 1968 and the “reporter” was Santa Barbara DJ, Johnny Fairchild, who had given Ernie & The Emperors their first airplay.

(Recently the instrumental backing track has been identified to me as an uncredited piece, “Upside Down World,” by Giant Crab engineer Paul Buff’s studio project, The Buff Organization, originally appearing as the B side to “Studio A,” an obscure 1968 single. Buff himself plays viola, along with a number of other instruments, on the track, which is a fascinating, spacey period piece on its own. “Upside Down World,” along with others by Buff, Giant Crab and the associated Big Brother Featuring Ernie Joseph, and Frank Zappa’s rare title song from Timothy Carey’s obscure cult film, The World’s Greatest Sinner, all can be found on the highly-recommended box set, Paul Buff Presents Highlights From The Pal And Original Sound Studio Archives.)

The first actual Gian Crab song, “It Started With A Little Kiss,” showcases many of the band’s strengths, including the soulful lead vocals of Ernie Orosco, their way with R&B-inflected rock and roll, and the distinctive arrangements. This one puts a Left Bank-like harpsichord behind the second verse and propels the chorus. It also has the most frenetic bongo drumming this side of Preston Epps, the inventive instrumental touches of which, along with a memorable bridging riff, add texture to an irresistible song.

Throughout the album’s 11 original tracks, written primarily by Ernie Orosco, and four covers, Giant Crab presents a virtual sampler of popular mid-to-late ‘60s rock and pop styles, often integrating numerous influences into single songs. On “The Chance You Take,” a crunchy guitar hook meets R&B-flavored horn charts; “Directions” alternates an ominous, heavy riff with funky syncopated horns. The sophisticated pop of “Enjoy It” shares a breezy energy with The Association or The Rascals at their sunniest. With its stately tempo and prominent Mellotron, “Why Am I So Proud” sounds almost like something the King Crimson of 1969 might have written in a bid for Top 40 success.

The Crab’s version of Joey Levine’s “I Enjoy Being The Boy,” a song popularized (as “I Enjoy Being A Boy”) by The Banana Splits on their Saturday morning TV show, amps up the song’s psychedelic feel with dense horns and Mellotron, providing some gravity to the trippy bubblegummer about cucumber castles and vanilla fudge hills. The most elaborate arrangement on the album, their take on “Lydia Purple,” one of three versions* released by different bands that year, could easily fit amongst any of the ornate studio concoctions so popular with the contemporary British rock acts of the time.

A Giant Crab Comes Forth is one of those albums, among the thousands now being re-released and rediscovered, that is so good, its obscurity is puzzling. Why wasn’t it massively successful? Then again, why weren’t any number of great ’60s records, such as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Gilded Palace of Sin, and Forever Changes? In the case of Giant Crab, one possible explanation was the choice of singles. While there isn’t a weak track, one of the album’s best, one that sounds like a sure-fire single, “It Started With A Little Kiss,” was passed over in favor of a cover of “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” which had already been a U.K. hit for the Jeff Beck Group. It may be that the cover song was thought to have U.S. hit potential, or that the original—which had been issued as a single the previous year, on the small Corby label, to minimal success—had already had a shot.

Whatever accounts for the disappointing reception for A Giant Crab Comes Forth, thanks to hip music blogs and reissue labels, it has endured, as many of its contemporary albums have failed to do. The fact it has received not one, but two recent CD releases attests to the ongoing interest in this venerable cult band. Before it goes out of print again, discover one of the great “lost” albums of the late ‘60s.

A Giant Crab Comes Forth is available on CD from two labels: The Kismet release duplicates the original album’s track list and running order, with new liner notes; the Estrella Rockera version adds Giant Crab’s final single, a cover of Rain’s “E.S.P.”

* A Canadian group, The Collectors, did an ornate version that did chart in the U.S. in 1968, though not significantly. Despite their stated desire to “[get]…an AM hit,” their rendition, while lovely, featured tempo changes that were generally anathema to ’60s AM radio. The Collectors changed their name to Chilliwack in 1970, and enjoyed some success for several years. Read more about their version here: Lydia Purple by The Collectors..
Tanya Falan also released a version of “Lydia Purple” around the same time. My original information indicated it was the A side of a 1968 single; it was definitely on her 1969 album, on Ranwood Records, Let It Be Me, apparently her only l.p. release. Ms. Falan turns in a nicely textured vocal on an overall enjoyable–if slightly lugubrious–rendition, it’s dulled edges possibly due to her role as a Lawrence Welk Show cast member, and onetime wife to Larry Welk, Jr.
The song’s composers, a duo called Dunn & McCashen, gave it a straighforward, rather uninspired rendition on their 1969 Mobius album. Somewhere I caught a glimpse of reference to yet another version, by something like Greenfield Country Boys, but have never found a shred of information, much less heard their version. A band called September (possibly Dutch, also possibly called Cargo) released it as a heavy, lite-prog ballad, with Three Dog Nightesque group vocals, in 1971: , a solid cover. Suffice to say, “Lydia Purple” proved irresistable as a cover song and elusive as a hit. And Giant Crab’s version is the superior rendition of those I’ve found.

[This review originally appeared in slightly different form on Blogcritics. Since then, I’ve added that parenthetical info about “Lydia Purple,” a song that, like several on this Giant Crab album, intrigues me to no end.
I’ve also learned that none of the former band members, certainly not the Orosco brothers, retain any ownership to the masters of the album or associated singles, so don’t see any financial benefit from sales of the new CD releases. Presumably they also signed away their publishing, although I am inferring that and haven’t had it confirmed. Also inferred from what I know of the band is that their former manager, and this album’s titular producer, Bill Holmes, most likely owns both the publishing and the band’s masters. I’d love to learn I’m wrong on this count.]