To say nineteen sixty-seven had been a good year for Elektra Records would be an understatement. Their decision to diversify into the field of rock music after over a decade immersed in the world of esoteric folk music had really begun to reap rewards. Hit records by the likes of the Doors and Love had garnered them an enviable reputation and by the fall of that year they were about to release a slew of classic records. Amongst an embarrassment of riches, which included the Doors’ ‘Strange Days,’ Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ and Tim Buckley’s ‘Hello and Goodbye,’ was an underrated artefact of that heady summer of love? Featuring a motley collection of Sunset Strip long hairs flanking one of the freakiest freaks ever to grace a record sleeve, the cover of Clear Light’s debut album release was guaranteed to make the casual record buyer look twice. Those turned on souls who were captivated enough to fork out the required cash must have been delighted when they put stylus to vinyl and unleashed the music pressed within. Featuring a mixture of delicate folk rock musings coupled with bombastic psychedelia delivered with dramatic flair and more time changes than you could shake a leg to, Clear Light was clearly a product of the Elektra school of acid rock, evoking highly favourable comparisons with both Love and the Doors. Unfortunately for Clear Light they were overshadowed by the high profile successes of their Elektra stable mates and didn’t achieve the critical and popular recognition that they deserved.
The genesis of the band came about by a chance encounter in 1966, when Robbie Robison went to audition as guitarist for a local Los Angeles R&B band. He didn’t get the gig, but he did come out of it with a new pal, drummer Michael Ney. Ney had been playing drums from an early age and had been a part of Tito Puente's circle of percussionists before going on to play with various local
Robbie and Barbara Robison with the Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
At a Peanut Butter Conspiracy show
The Brain Train at the Sea Witch 1966.
One of his discoveries was a young German called Wolfgang Dios who had written a song called 'Black Roses' and Bud was looking around for a suitable group to record it. Dios recommended a group he had seen performing at a beach side club, which turned out to be the Garnerfield Sanitarium. Mathis went along to check them out and liked what he saw and approached the band afterwards with an offer to manage them. It turned out to be a serendipitous meeting, as Mathis just happened to know a bassist who was looking around for a band to play with. Douglas Lubahn had been working as a ski instructor in
It was around November 1966 that the group underwent an identity change and took the name the Brain Train. Mathis had started to book the group into clubs around the Sunset Strip where they played showcases at venues like Pandora's Box, the Sea Witch and the Hullabaloo. Bud also financed a recording session at the Electro Vox Studios, where they put down demos of their arrangement of Dios’ ‘Black Roses’ and another track; Lubahn and Mathis' 'Me.' The resulting recordings, combining folk rock and Yardbirds style "rave ups" with atmospheric raga influenced psychedelia, were impressive, in fact so impressive the group was signed up by the Elektra Corporation at the beginning of January 1967, the first and only label that Mathis had approached. Unfortunately for Mathis it wasn’t long before the group were persuaded that, in their best interests, they should allow Elektra producer Paul Rothchild to take over as manager, and Bud was bought out. Before long another name change came about and the group formally adopted the name Clear Light. Depending on differing accounts it was either the choice of Bob Seal and taken from a Tibetan Buddhist transcendental state, or from a chance remark made by the Doors' Jim Morrison during an acid trip with Paul Rothchild. Whatever the inspiration for the name, it was a perfect hip choice for the up and coming outfit.
One of the provisos the band insisted upon on being signed to Elektra was that they be moved from the cramped apartment they were all sharing. Elektra leased a large rambling old Hollywood mansion on Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz, close to Hollywood, which had previously been home to thirties comic actor W.C. Fields which from then on became known as the "Light House." Once ensconced in their new pad Clear Light began working on arranging and rehearsing material for their forthcoming recording sessions, while making their live debut under the new name at the first Los Angeles Love In at Griffith Park on Easter Sunday. Sometime in April they went in to the studio to begin recording material for the new album, putting down a reworking of 'Black Roses' and a Robbie Robison composition, the driving folk punker 'She's Ready to be Free.' Although a substantial amount of material was recorded, Rothchild aborted the sessions, unhappy with Robbie Robison and looking for something to make up for what he felt was missing from the group.
The Light House.
By May they had several concert appearances under their belt, even travelling to Massachusetts for a show at the Boston Tea Party, but had returned to Los Angeles as they had landed the role of a 'psychedelic rock band' in a film being produced in Hollywood. Clear Light had been chosen to appear in Theodore J. Flicker's movie 'The President's Analyst,' beating over 100 of their contemporaries from Los Angeles and San Francisco, including the Grateful Dead, who had also auditioned.. Presumably because the group weren’t fronted by a distinct personality,
With Barry McGuire in the President's Analyst.
By June the vocal problems were overcome when a new member was added to the group. Cliff De Young was an aspiring actor who had been singing with a variety of no name groups but who had garnered quite a reputation as a vocalist of some presence. Although his fresh faced image was at odds with the look of the rest of the band his dramatic delivery and distinct voice was very much in keeping with the direction that Clear Light were now following. It was around this time that Paul Rothchild came to the conclusion that Robbie wasn’t working well in the band and so the decision was taken to replace him. Robbie himself always admitted he wasn’t a great guitar player and graciously backed out from the group, but remained a member of the inner circle. Several guitarists unsuccessfully auditioned to take his place, including Doug Hastings, previously of the Daily Flash and most recently from a stint standing in for Neil Young in the Buffalo Springfield. Eventually a replacement was found, not a guitarist, but 17 year old keyboard player Ralph Schuckett.
The new line up featuring Cliff and Ralph.
Schuckett had been in high school bands and played with various groups on the Sunset Strip/Canyon scene, including Manbeevil, with members of the Rising Sons, earning a reputation as an extremely gifted keyboard player. The band continued to work its material into shape, rehearsing by day and playing live shows around Los Angeles at night. They even managed to take an eventful trip over to the East Coast in July for a 17 night run at Steve Paul's Scene club in
In August they resumed the recording sessions for the album at Sunset Sound Recorders, which had just upgraded its facilities from 4 track to 8 track. Clear Light were in studio B whilst the Doors were in Studio A recording Strange Days. Doug Lubahn flitted between the studios, as he was playing bass for both sessions, having been recommended to the Doors by Paul Rothchild. The new tracks featured Schuckett's keyboard wizardry and he further contributed to the album by collaborating with Cliff De Young on the Ballad of Freddie & Larry. One of the highlights of the sessions was the reinterpretation of Tom Paxton's 'Mr Blue;' the jaunty folk rock tune was transformed into a dark menacing trip into paranoia. Rothchild's overbearing attitude and dictatorial approach to producing and managing the band didn’t go down well with certain sections of the band and soon relations between Seal and Rothchild had become severely strained.
The debut 45, coupling 'She's Ready to be Free' with 'Black Roses,' was released in September and Clear Light played a series of dates around the Greater Los Angeles area, performing at various venues with the likes of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Kaleidoscope, Blue Cheer and Van Morrison. A trip up the coast to San Francisco for a series of shows at the Fillmore saw the band due to appear with Lee Michaels and Pink Floyd, but Syd Barrett's deteriorating mental condition meant Pink Floyd were unable to perform. November saw the release of the Clear Light album and the band were booked to make an appearance on the Pat Boone in Hollywood TV special. For some reason they thought it would be funny to swap roles when miming to Black Roses which pissed off Rothchild immensely and his relationship with certain members of the group became even more strained than before. A second 45, coupling They Who Have Nothing with The Ballad of Freddie and Larry, is released to enhance the promotion of the album. In an attempt to benefit from the attention Clear Light were now receiving, Bud Mathis licensed the two Brain Train demos to Titan records which they released on a 45.
In December they then embarked on a tour of the East coast, playing at the Boston Tea party before arriving in New York, where they stayed at the Albert hotel, a notorious hang out popular with many visiting rock groups and a focus for the groupies that followed them. Performing at venues such as Café Au Go Go, with Tim Buckley, and the
Back in New York work had commenced on the second album, with Kortchmar taking the band in a different direction. After completing a couple of recordings Cliff De Young decided to take his leave, returning to college with an eye to pursuing a career as an actor. Clear Light continued as a five piece and in February the remaining members, minus Dallas Taylor, were drafted in by Kortchmar to play on the recording sessions for the Monkees' film Head, providing suitably psychedelic backing on the Carole King composition Porpoise Song. Heading back to LA, the next few months saw the band criss-crossing the country for a series of concerts from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and San Francisco to