Cult Heroes No. 18: The Misunderstood
The story of The Misunderstood is a true rock ‘n’ roll shambles. A bewildering 1960s tale of broken promises, poverty, draft dodging and insane musical ideas. It’s also the tale of a band who were genuine pioneers, forced to watch as others reaped the benefit. Makes Spinal Tap seem more boring that a 74-minute bass solo! Check out ll the previous Cult Heroes.
Words: Malcolm Dome
Some people have referred to The Misunderstood as the great lost band of the 1960s. Others, though, believe that they were never known enough in the first place to actually become lost. The truth is that this band were so far out on their own, so individual and innovative that you can only wonder at the set of circumstances that conspired to prevent them from becoming the iconic name that was surely their destiny.
It was with this in mind that I determined to track down somebody from the band and find out what actually happened. This proved to be a lot easier than expected. Well, at first…
“Hey man, I’m the singer in the band. What do you wanna know?” wrote Rick Brown from his home in Thailand. Success! So, I dashed off a list of basic questions, and waited eagerly for the insightful response. At last light on the mystery. Except that Brown – who said (or rather wrote) that he preferred to send his answers by email – didn’t react to the questions at all. Instead, he sent me a copy of his ebook Like, Misunderstood. “It’s all here,” he told me. “If you read this, then you’ll understand what happened.” The fact this is a novelisation of the story means it’s not necessarily accurate – so, more a case of misunderstand!. But it does give you some idea of the freeform chaosphere in which the band existed, a bubble of creativity and self-combustion that put them way ahead of the pack, but also meant the inevitability of total disintegration.
Starting out in 1963 in Riverside, California as surf band the Blue Notes, early recordings of the band suggested they were a decent garage rock band. But by 1965, things had accelerated. Now inspired by the more adventurous style of The Yardbirds, they also brought in sounds and musical symbolism from such far-flung places as India and Africa, much of which came from guitarist Glenn Ross Campbell, a new arrival in 65. Says the man himself about his style:
“I would meet with resistance from most bands I’d been with. But with The Misunderstood, there was none of that. They were fascinated, much as I was. They were willing to try anything. There was never any of the usual sort of ego paranoia. They’d take a chance of looking like foolish just to try something new.”
At the time, The Misunderstood weren’t just unique – they utterly bamboozled audiences in California. The combination of strange sounds (like being carpet bombed with feral psychedelic ideas, while on your first acid trip), helped no end by the fact that Campbell was playing steel guitar, and also a visual show that was unlike anything else at the time. The way they hooked together instrument feedback with a dazzling light show held people spellbound, as the guitarist now recalls:
“We got the instruments feeding back, and left the stage. The way we did it, they would just go on indefinitely. The feedback would go into harmonics and octave changes and so on. It was quite eerie in itself. But when you combined that with these lights, it was a really bizarre effect. The lights were going up and down, (the audience’s) faces would come into focus and stuff, and they were absolutely hypnotized, stunned, just standing there. We thought, ‘Man, we’ve stumbled onto something here’. From that time on, we were considered the sort of alchemists of the music scene.”
Holding England as a mecca for musical greatness, the band appeared to get their big break when they were spotted by a young English radio DJ called John Ravenscroft, who quickly became a fan. He would later find global fame as John Peel, and arranged for The Misunderstood (initially without Brown) to go across to England, ready for…well, a degree of slapstick frustration! With no money or work permits, the band smuggled their equipment into the country, and went over to stay at a house in London, where they were told that Peel’s parents were expecting them. But, when the hapless proto-hippies turned up, there was no sign of life in the house. It was to be a further two days before the unsuspecting mater and pater Ravenscroft returned from their holidays – to be accosted by some weird Yanks living on their front lawn!
Eventually, the band were let in to the comparative sanctuary of the house. But this incident had only served to undermine any residual belief they might have had that fame was literally waiting to be scooped off the pavement.
Two weeks later, Brown arrived – fully expecting to be greeted by hoards of screaming girls. Instead, his bandmates were there, totally skint and having to jump barriers at railways stations, to avoid payment as they got to the airport to meet their hopeful singer! It must have been like a scene from The Monkees TV show, as The Misunderstood repeated their payment avoidance scheme on the way back to their temporary abode, this time with the bemused Brown being dragged along.
“The cops were chasing us and jeez, this wasn’t what Rick had in mind at all!”
While it all might seem anarchically entertaining from this distance of some 45 years, at the time things were desperate. Bassist Steve Whiting briefly took a job burning body parts (no, he wasn’t working for The Krays!). Rhythm guitarist Greg Treadway went back to the States, after being drafted into the US Navy and the band were, by now, living in the splendour of significant squalor in a basement, although Brown did briefly manage to share a flat with Jeff Beck.
However, with Englishman Tony Hill now in the line-up, The Misunderstood got a deal with the Fontana label, First single I Can Take You To The Sun (put out in 1966) was simply stunning. It could be vaguely compared to what the likes of The Yardbirds were doing, but in actuality had the hint of their own blessed-up, fuzzed out genius and pure dark magic. The music was exploring unknown musical mazes, and leaving listeners amazed.
“When Tony was in the band, we virtually had no limits,” says Campbell. ”We could do umpteen different styles or colourations. We were approaching it like a trio, much like Hendrix did later, and Cream, even though there were two guitar players. But the way Tony and I were playing, it was almost like one instrument. We kind of weaved and ducked and twisted around, but quite often, we were taking solos at the same time. And we were sort of dancing together as soloists.”
A weird incident at the press launch for the single in London got the band major attention, for reasons which made them feel uncomfortable and perhaps rather like freaks in a bucket of all out freakishness. During this launch, they’d played one song – lasting about six minutes- which they set up by holding up an envelope, inside which was a piece of paper. On that was written one word, which was said to relate to the way the song should make listeners feel.
After they’d done the song, the band canvassed opinions on this from three or four members of the audience, all of whom related it to apples in one sense or another. And the word written on the paper: apple! Paul Daniels would have been proud.
But the attention this so-called trick gained from the media worried the band enormously, as Campbell sighs:
“I had a notebook of various chords and rhythm combinations and all sorts of stuff, inversions, harmonies that would seem to produce certain effects, so that we could write songs with these various already researched combinations, and expect a certain response from an audience.
“We didn’t want to control an audience. The idea ultimately was that we could set up healing centres to use music and lights in a sort of holistic kind of way, and also to communicate our experiences.
“But we all got a bit worried, and we actually took the book and destroyed it. We might have been maybe giving ourselves a little more credit than we were due. We felt we stumbled onto something we didn’t really want to get in the wrong hands, and it kind of spooked us a bit. So that book just got torn up and burned.”
While all of this might seem a little spaced out and decidedly deluded, in an acid trip kinda way, it must be born in mind that modern psychological theory does back up this notion. Again, the band were too far ahead of the times for their own good. If only they’d had access to the TARDIS…
In 1967, the band seemed destined for a massive breakthrough, but had to watch from the sidelines as Jimi Hendrix and the Pink Floyd got career boosts, while they were simply brushed aside. Lack of work permits meant the band could barely play live, and when Brown was drafted into the US army as the Vietnam War raged on, The Misunderstood collapsed. Brown went AWOL from the army, and, dodging the attempts to get him back, eventually ended up in India. Meantime, the rest of the band were stranded in France. Apparently, they’d seemingly found a new frontman and, while his passport and papers were being sorted, their manager at the time told the rest of them to get over to Paris as they’d been booked to open for the Rolling Stones – no such gig existed, though!
Whiting managed to get back, after a high class London hooker promised to marry him (it was a con, but one that worked). However, Campbell and drummer Rick Moe were only allowed to return to England for 24 hours; enough time to sell their equipment and buy one way tickets back to California. Honestly, you couldn’t make this up!
In all, The Misunderstood recorded just seven songs for Fontana, with a second single (Children Of The Sun) again underlining that they were the blueprint for so much that was to come. Posthumously, there have been a few compilations, the most notable of which was 1982′s Before The Dream Faded, which collated all those seven songs recorded in London during 1966 (including the B sides of the two aforementioned singles, namely a cover of Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love and I Unseen). It also had a further five tracks recorded the previous year in America.
So, there you have it. The ridiculous and almost too far-fetched truth of a band who really were meant to change the world of rock, yet ended up with not enough change in their pocket to eat. Damned by fate, feted to be damned. What is incredible is that their name has become so recognised and renowned. There’s even a claim that early Floyd were overly inspired (!) by what this lot were doing. Hill went on to form the influential prog metal band High Tide, while Campbell (who now lives in New Zealand) joined the briefly reformed The Misunderstood in 1969; a much more prosaic representation, this eventually mutated into Juicy Lucy, having a hit with Who Do You Love. But the fact is that none of the musicians involved got even close to fulfilling their destiny.
In 1968 John Peel said of I Can Take You To The Sun that it was, “The greatest popular record that’s ever been recorded”. He might have had a good point.
The novel I mentioned earlier, Like, Misunderstood (co-written by Brown with Mike Stax) is available at www.themisuderstood.com
There’s also info there about a planned movie, the script for which is the basis for the novel. If done properly, this’ll be crazier than Spinal Tap, with perhaps a touch more bathos and pathos.
In the meantime, get a feel for the band by listening to
Tags: Bo Diddley, Cult Heroes, Glenn Ross Campbell, Greg Treadway, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, John Peel, Juicy Lucy, Pink Floyd, Rick Brown, Rick Moe, Steve Whiting, The Misunderastood, The Monkees, Tony Hill