“Definitions define limit.” I first read this aphorism of Mayo Thompson’s on the back of the debut Red Crayola album in 1967, and promptly adopted it as one of the guiding touchstones of my life. The music I found within that album was a conglomeration of “Free-form Freak-out” provided by half-a-hundred communal folk called the Familiar Ugly, banging around on home-brewed instruments and merging toward strange psychedelic rave-ups, much like what the Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd was improvising into jams, and what later groups like the Spaceman Three and My Bloody Valentine would extend into lysergically influenced song-form.
The recent re-release of the Crayola’s initial album, with bonus remixes of the original freak-outs, occasions a listen to the pop impulse behind the psychic light show. The founding members – Thompson, Steve Cunningham and drummer Frederick Barthelme (brother of Donald) – were art students at the University of St. Thomas, familiar with the avant-garde and conceptual thinkers. Yet they believed in the visceral power of music – “the liberty of feeling, distinct from intent, affirms the musical process,” Cunningham wrote. Surely the sense of generational take-off is imagined in “Hurricane Fighter Plane,” with Roky Erikson on organ, or the modal drone of “War Sucks,” with its blunt, anti-militaristic message. The songs morph into freeform jams, and then rise from the pandemonium. It’s a seamless transition of anything-goes, and it positioned the Red Crayola (later Krayola) as further ahead of their far-out time than could be imagined. Thompson would later find a home with Cleveland avatars Pere Ubu, but would keep the Crayola brand going with experimental and unsettling albums that even today seem futuristic.