The Lost History of The Charlatans


Rock music has indelible ties to the early pop bands of the 1950’s and blues of the 1920’s and 1950’s, but its mainstream and musical success really lies in the divergence of the genre in the early 1960’s. There were three main advances in rock that ultimately led to the powerhouse artists of the late 60’s and early 70’s: surf rock bands in Southern California, who incorporated dynamic picking techniques and more complex structure into contemporary rock, The Beatles, and other British bands – who flipped the music industry on its head and pushed for more depth in pop music – and finally, the Bay Area psychedelic bands that ended the era of popular singles as the main avenue for success. San Francisco, throughout the 50’s with the Beatnik movement, became a haven for transients, avant-garde artists, the homeless, the disenfranchised (including homosexuals and progressive feminists), and drug experimentalists. The unique blend of cultural influences, lack of money, and experimental thinking created one of the most dynamic music scenes in recent memory. Bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Credence Clearwater Revival – all household names and commercial successes – owe their reputations to this amalgam of varying cultures, as well as to some of the lesser-known bands from this area during the early 60’s. The Charlatans squarely fit into the foundation that elevated rock to the music that represented a generation.

The Charlatans belong to a prominent class of talented artists, transcending the bounds of labeled genres that never saw commercial success. They were founded in the summer of 1964 – the same year the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan and The Rolling Stones released their debut album – by friends George Hunter and Richard Olsen. The early lineup featured three other musicians, and all five were notable for their Victorian style clothing, inspiring the free-flowing and colorful dress of hippies later in the decade (just one of their many “firsts”).

The band became an instant success throughout Northern California, playing old hits like Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and traditional folk songs from Appalachia and the South. At a notable performance in the summer of 1965, during an audition to become the house band at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, the band members all took LSD, becoming the first of many “acid rock” bands in the area. Just a month before, they released a poster showcasing a show just south of Berkeley featuring a combination of surreal color combinations and bubble lettering: the first psychedelic poster, an important form of art that went on to change the way that bands promoted themselves.

Their distinctive sound – a combination of jugband, blues, and folk –became regionally iconic, even earning its own genre: the San Francisco Sound. The influx of musicians and artists from around the country brought with it a rich music tradition where artists raised in a city in the West could sing about the Bayous of Louisiana (Credence Clearwater Revival) and the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky (Grateful Dead) with enough passion to get listeners to yearn for simpler times. The band was part of a Southern revival, where folk-infused rock inhabited a fringe area of mainstream music.

During the period from the early 1964 until 1969, the Charlatans took part in several recording sessions, but mostly found moderate success touring around the Bay Area performing at underground and obscure establishments. By 1969, they had enough material to release a full-length studio album; an eponymous debut and the only album to be released during their career.

The Charlatans is a tour through the most dynamic sounds of this era. “High Coin”, the first track, features a strong flute and piano along with a guitar solo that extends into the outro, a novel advancement moving the guitar into a main instrument. There is noticeable reverb and an eerie faded texture to the sound, a technique later explored by Jefferson Airplane and others a few years later.

The first few songs continue this pattern, reaching “Folsom Prison Blues”, a unique cover of the famous Cash song. Their method of playing these blues infused songs adds a lot of energy into the mix. “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’” doesn’t emulate a typical song in the genre – an upbeat baseline that the lyrics and guitar dance around culminates in a saxophone that dominates the pre-chorus. Each chorus concludes with a slow, repetitive sax line that fades into a scream from Olsen shooting the song back into an energized verse.

The next two songs return to a mellower tempo; retroactively, it becomes clear that “Time to Get Straight” has a sort of off-key harmonization – a staple of the Grateful Dead – that lends itself to a flute solo over a chord progression on piano. “When I Go Sailin’ By”, written and performed earlier in the decade, sounds eerily similar to any Beatles track with Lennon as the vocalist. Its semi-waltz feel is part of that rare element that made the Beatles so famous: the ability to make a listener feel comfortable with experimental and unconventional tracks.

The remaining four songs help transition the album back to its folk roots. “Wabash Cannonball” is a classic eight bar blues that feels like it belongs in a compilation of edgy 50’s rock ‘n roll songs. “Alabama Sound” and the final track, “When the Movies are Over”, have a more conventional folk feel. The former is a traditional ragtime song from the South written in 1909 by Robert Hoffman – a sufficiently obscure song for a band that saw themselves as insufficiently progressive.

The album is by no means perfect and is definitely not the best album from the decade – the key element to understanding The Charlatans as a band is not their actual musical ability, but rather their novelty. George Hunter, one of the founders of the band, exemplifies this spirit: he did not originally play a musical instrument, but instead had a vision for what a rock band should be. He coupled his talents with Mike Ferguson’s artistic and theatrical flair, creating a band that could sustain an image, albeit with a limited appeal.

By the time their album came out in 1969, the jugband/blues style of rock had faded from any sort of mainstream rock. Heavier sounds like Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Jefferson Airplane were now the cornerstone of rock. Even The Grateful Dead, who represented the manifestation of folk-rock, only achieved limited success on that front – they relied mostly on their devoted fan base and unique method of jamming on stage to fuel their mystique and commercial viability.

The Charlatans is engaging because it perfectly captures the nature of the San Francisco Sound. As artists, they were experimental, creative, and purposeful. They existed purely as a band meant to reach their audience, and to perform music that could deliver the kind of emotive experience they set out to create. The atmosphere of their shows, the lack of a studio album until later in their career, and the outfits and layout of the band created concerts that were truly spectacular events that couldn’t be experienced anywhere else, especially not in the home or on the radio.

Thus, The Charlatans “were just cast to be local, just doomed; that was it,” according to their drummer Dan Hicks, who went on to achieve moderate success as a part of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Their role was left in a position of relative obscurity – by no means a less noble role. Psychedelic rock enthusiast continue to elevate them to a totemic status, but, as with most forms of art, the vanguard bears the brunt of the initial assault.

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