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.]