Deep Digs: The Poppy Family – Which Way You Goin’ Billy? (London Recordings, 1969)

Deep Digs: The Poppy Family – Which Way You Goin’ Billy? (London Recordings, 1969)

By: Kaelen Bell | Art by: Michael Rancic

In Deep Digs we take a look at significant albums from Canadian history, with an emphasis on music that might have been overlooked the first time around. This month writer Kaelen Bell revisits the radio pop-warping psychedelia of the Poppy Family’s Which Way You Goin’ Billy?

Thumbing through thrift shop stacks or your stoner uncle’s record crates, coming across Which Way You Goin’ Billy? might not elicit much interest. At first glance, the Poppy Family’s 1969 debut is another piece of dusty basement ephemera, a camp record from a camp band lost to the winds of time. Pull the vinyl from the sleeve, however, and you’ll find a piece of Canadian music history, a rare and fundamental record whose memory still sprouts quietly in the small, strange cracks of the world.

Born in Saskatoon and raised in the Fraser Valley, Susan Pesklevits was 17 when she met Terry Jacks in 1966 on the set of teen program Let’s Go, the Vancouver spinoff of Toronto’s Alex Trebek-hosted Music Hop. The two had already found small success individually, Pesklevits as a teen performer on national programs and with her trio the Eternal Triangle, and Jacks with his high school band the Chessmen, who scored a handful of Vancouver-area hits in the early ’60s. It would be a year after their on-set meeting that Pesklevits recruited Jacks for a performance in Hope, BC. Eventually the one-off became a string of shows, Pesklevits married Terry and became Susan Jacks, and the duo recruited lead guitarist Craig McCaw and started writing songs as Powerline.

The trio would start going by the name the Poppy Family sometime in late 1967. As a symbol of wartime remembrance, pharmaceutical destruction, and eternal sleep, the technicolour dream world flower was a fittingly complicated name for a band that bent radio pop innocence to the plane of eerie psychedelia. But they wouldn’t truly become the Poppy Family until the arrival of tabla player Satwant Singh. A student of Hindustani classical legend Alla Rakha with an interest in exploring Western music, Singh was the group’s secret weapon, elevating their folk-pop sound to a realm of coruscating fantasy.

Produced and primarily written by Terry Jacks and released on London Recordings in 1969, Which Way You Goin’ Billy? oscillates between pop heartache and hallucination. Its songs are driven by innocent fixations on love, clouds, shadows, and the mind that seems always on the verge of curdling into a bad trip. When it finally does, on side A closer “There’s No Blood in Bone,” it feels a bit put-on. Four introspective flower children peering eyes half-closed into the abyss, “There’s No Blood in Bone” is a fascinating detour: a band typically lit in gentle white now suddenly cast in buzzing red. The song emits a metallic heat—Susan’s hand-manipulated vocal introduction gives way to corrosive organ and guitar tones that swarm like gnats.

Released two years after 1967’s Summer of Love, Which Way You Goin’ Billy? glistens with some of Haight-Ashbury’s anti-establishment, revolutionary fervor. “What Can the Matter Be” grapples with race, industrialism, pre-war-on-drugs criminalization, and puritanism. Yet the band sound more at home in the space just before the shadows, where Terry’s sunny melodies and Susan’s luminous voice keep their intrinsic darkness at arm’s length. It’s the trick of the creepy doll or overly polite child, an unnerving sense of spoil beneath the pleasant veneer. 

Sonically, the record feels delightfully in flux. Horn-dotted country-pop opener “That’s Where I Went Wrong” is a world away from the creeping delirium of “Shadows on My Walls,” the sound of a band figuring themselves out in real time. The black heart of Which Way You Goin’ Billy? pumps in “You Took My Moonlight Away,” where the foursome’s brew of ’60s pop and Hindustani-inspired psychedelia concentrates into something briefly, subtly transcendent. Cascades of strings, McCaw’s hazy sitar, and Singh’s rolling tabla are cast like twinkling stars, pulled and stretched across an expanse of inky black. “You Took My Moonlight Away” is the record’s sleeper hit, but Which Way You Goin’ Billy? had real ones too. The band’s weird little star gradually expanded as the album’s title track went #1 in Canada and Ireland, spending several weeks on the charts. But with nascent fame came complication.

At a time when modern thresholds for appropriation were crossed with wide-eyed abandon, Susan’s occasional saris or fringed moccasin boots were worn in stark contrast with her reassuring whiteness. The foursome’s music sounded something like genuine cultural synergy. But the collaborative magic the Poppy Family uncovered on their debut would soon curdle; Terry gradually phased out Singh and McCaw, and the two were relegated to side-players before eventually leaving in 1970. Of the band’s various televised performances still available on YouTube, McCaw is featured only three times and Singh just twice. The band’s second and final record, 1971’s Poppy Seeds, was recorded by Susan and Terry with a revolving door of session players, a muted outing compared to the twisted majesty of their debut.

After effectively dismantling the band, Terry Jacks went #1 again in 1973 with his treacly rendition of “Seasons in the Sun,” an English adaptation of Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribond” that was originally intended for the Beach Boys. Susan would garner a string of modest hits with her solo records, including the timeless road-song “Anna Marie,” from 1975’s Dream; the single stands tall alongside the Poppy Family’s best work. Singh went on to teach tabla and play with McCaw long after the Family’s dissolution, and the band’s four-year run eventually became a hazy footnote.

Which Way You Goin’ Billy? remains out of print in its original form, but the Poppy Family still cross over to our side from time to time, reuniting briefly in 2014 for a series of festival performances and interviews without Terry. “Of Cities and Escape” and “What Can the Matter Be” are sampled prominently on Deltron 3030’s “Madness” and “Things You Can Do,” respectively, while 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog sees Jim Carrey dancing through his laboratory to Poppy Seeds‘ “Where Evil Grows.” The physical legacy of Which Way You Goin’ Billy? may now be relegated to dusty basement relic and crate-digger collectable, but it always felt incorporeal anyway, a blur of pollen or a red star’s distant glow, a small and strange record whose power lives beyond the things we can touch.

Deep Digs: Mort Garson’s Lucifer: Black Mass (UNI Records, 1971)

Deep Digs: Mort Garson’s Lucifer: Black Mass (UNI Records, 1971)

Music for Satan and the people who love him

By: Michael Rancic | Mort Garson photo courtesy of Day Darmet

In Deep Digs we take a look at significant albums from Canadian history, with an emphasis on music that might have been overlooked the first time around. Our inaugural feature in the series focuses on Mort Garson’s Lucifer: Black Mass, which writer Michael Rancic argues is the most Mort Garson of all Mort Garson records. 

Black Mass stands out in composer Mort Garson’s long and idiosyncratic discography like an inky smear on an otherwise colourful and varied canvas. The sole album released by his alias Lucifer is filled with shadowy melodies, minor key passages, and a fascination with the occult. It’s a stark counterpoint to Mother Earth’s Plantasia, the album Garson is best known for, with its music written for plants and the people who love them. This album, like Plantasia, is a testament to the electronic pioneer’s ability as a composer to take an idea and immerse himself in it, and speaks to the creative freedom that he was able to tap into once introduced to the Moog synthesizer. 

Wherever he went, whatever he did, Garson never fit in neatly. He was born in Saint John, New Brunswick but lived most of his life in the United States. His synth of choice was a Moog, despite the fact that he lived in San Francisco where the pervading school of thought at the time was very much against the synth’s piano-style keyboard, opting instead for the waveshapers and low pass gate exemplified by Don Buchla’s eponymous machines. Like his contemporary and fellow expat Bruce Haack, Garson studied at Julliard and even had a hit on his hands in the early 1960s after writing Ruby and The Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come.” Yet he never quite had a home in pop music. Garson did find a niche where he could in writing novelty songs, guided by his love for the conceptual.  

I spoke to Garson’s daughter, Day Darmet, for a feature that addressed Plantasia and its influence earlier this year for The Walrus, though those passages ended up getting cut from the final piece. Darmet’s insights into her father’s work are admittedly limited, as she was still a teenager when he wrote and recorded most of his work, but she does recall how the Moog changed him. Garson was working as a songwriter, conductor and arranger when he discovered the synth. For a classically trained composer, the familiarity of the Moog’s keyboard and controls was an open door to discovering the worlds of sound it contained. 

“[Music] was a constant source of conversation just from being around him. He was consistently either writing, playing or at the very least tapping his finger to a song inside his head,” Darmet recalls. Having the Moog around gave him an unprecedented immediacy for writing and recording his ideas. For someone who was used to conducting orchestras, he now had one at his fingertips. “He could write inside his head and he could hear it back right away,” Darmet explains.

As it turned out, prior to his introduction with the Moog, Garson was looking for a way to inspire such a fundamental change in his work. “It had been a long time before he had an option to get out of commercialism and go into something that was more artistically motivating for him,” Darmet says, explaining that the synthesizer was liberating for him and his art for a myriad of reasons. “It was not conventional, it was something that was relatively undiscovered, and that allowed him to make music in a different way.”

Black Mass then is the sound of Garson embracing his anti-commercial side in the most anti way possible: a synthesizer-based album inspired by Satanism and the occult. A “black mass” is a fitting theme for Garson to explore at this stage in his artistry as it represents an inversion or perversion of one of the main pillars of the Catholic faith—essentially going against the grain. His alias, Lucifer, also shares that same contrary nature, acting as a foil to God himself. In that sense, by exploring these themes this record is wholly a rejection of Garson’s own commercial work, making it perhaps the most “Mort Garson” album he ever made. “It didn’t matter to him if it sold, if someone listened. It just had to be produced. It had to be made. It had to come out,” Darmet reveals.

As writer Sarah Jaffe points out, the connection between esoteric wisdom, the occult, and anti-capitalist beliefs is a longstanding one, and a growing stream of scholarly exploration given the recent revival of practices like tarot card reading (which Garson would later explore in full on 1975’s Ataraxia: The Unexplained. “The emerging proletariat had to be trained to defer gratification; to stifle desire; to value accumulation over expenditure,” Jaffe writes for Verso.“A belief in magic, instead, centered desires—and their fulfillment—communal and personal, for care and sustenance and protection.” 

Black Mass begins with an invocation of the pentagram, or “Solomon’s Ring,” with fluttering notes that trill and bloom into an intensely percussive seance. Its driving beat and beguiling melody summon forth streaming synths that pan and howl before dissipating once more. The song establishes a dark mood that hangs over the entire record.  

“Incubus” wanders insatiably before pitched-up moans materialize (perhaps taken from Garson’s other 1971 project, Music For Sensuous Lovers), while the title track “Black Mass” features disembodied synths and bells that announce the presence of a wildly gesturing, bright melody of mania. “Exorcism” is much more buoyant than the iconic creepfest performance Linda Blair would deliver two years later in the William Friedkin classic, The Exorcist. While the material on Black Mass isn’t purely purgatory, with lighter passages throughout that sound to a contemporary ear less demonic than the high drama typically associated with “horror synth,” they make the record all the more unsettling. As the most talented metal and goth musicians would demonstrate later that decade, horror is just as much about camp and hyperbolic fancy as it is an enveloping darkness. 

There’s plenty of that too—“The Evil Eye” might just mark the birth of dungeon synth with its moody, atmospheric, bubbling electronic sounds that drip like they’re in a dank cave. Its pensive melody advances with trepidation from room to room as if being watched. “Witch Trial” begins with a melody that would not sound out of place on Plantasia, but the order of the natural world that he evokes later on that album gets disturbed and thrown into an unpredictably tense climax here, with an insistent drum machine beat that foretells Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Finally, album closer “ESP” leans into the sinister for one last disorienting minute. 

Electronic music has always had a close relationship to the macabre, dating back to the theremin’s use in sci-fi and horror scores of the 1940s and 50s, or as a more Canadian example, Myron Schaeffer’s use of his hamograph in the 1961 film The Mask. Garson’s sonic explorations on this record anticipate the specifically synth-heavy horror of Goblin, John Carpenter, and frequent David Cronenberg collaborator, Howard Shore. 

At first impression, Black Mass may seem leagues away from the rest of Garson’s work. But if there’s any throughline in his discography it’s his ability to take on a concept—be it the signs of the zodiac, reinterpretations of the musical Hair, music for plants—and completely live in it to do it justice. While we know albums like The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds and Plantasia were ideas pitched to Garson that he carried out thoughtfully, how he arrived at the concept for Black Mass is a little less clear, and perhaps will be illuminated by the liner notes in the album reissue Sacred Bones have slated for November 2020. 

It’s a path that even eludes his daughter Darmet. “I don’t know how he conceptually got to those places. I have no idea,” she explains. “I think that anybody that pitched anything to him, he could write music for.”  Garson’s mercurial aspect lies at the heart of his creativity, and it’s something he couldn’t truly express until he had a Moog in his hands. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article described the west-coast school of synthesizer thought as “very much against voltage-controlled synthesizers” and also characterized a Buchla solely as a “mess of wires” when that was not a main distinguishing feature between that make and a Moog.