The Charlatans and the birth of acid rock

Showdown at the Red Dog Saloon, LSD, and the first psychedelic concert poster


The Charlatans decked up in their outlaw finery
The Charlatans decked up in their outlaw finery

It is one of those facts of life that pioneers often do not reap the rewards for their endeavours. When a San Francisco rock band called The Charlatans landed up one day in Virginia City, Nevada in the summer of 1965, local residents must have felt that the past had suddenly engulfed them all over again. The rag-tag members of The Charlatans were dressed in Wild West costumes, looking like gunslingers who had ridden into town.

Virginia City had a chequered history with its origins in the discovery of the famous Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposits found in the US. That was way back in 1859 and Virginia City quickly became a boomtown attracting all kinds of people seeking fame and fortune. One such person was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who was working as a reporter in a local newspaper in 1862. It was here that he first used his famous pen name Mark Twain.

In their own way, The Charlatans were similar to the Wild West pioneers as it could be argued that the group was one of the founding fathers of acid rock. Formed in 1964 by George Hunter (vocals, autoharp) and Richard Olsen (bass), its ranks were filled in by Mike Wilhelm on lead guitar, Mike Ferguson on keyboards and Dan Hicks on drums. Like some of their contemporaries, such as The Warlocks (who would soon rename themselves as the Grateful Dead), The Charlatans were inspired by folk and blues, especially jug band music.

Pretty early on in their career, the band stood apart from the herd by resorting to quirky sartorial choices. They favoured the Wild West look, but were not averse to donning dandyish attire from the Edwardian era with all its frills. Some of their songs that exist on record show their fascination for old-timey music. I Always Wanted a Girl Like You, Sweet Sue, Just You and Steppin’ in Society seems like ghosts who have escaped the confines of show tunes from the 1920s.

There were other relics from that era in The Charlatans’ repertoire that were more in tune with the blues rediscovering that was happening in the early 1960s —Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman and Robert Johnson’s 32-20 Blues. But unlike blues rock bands such as Cream, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Charlatans’ versions were decidedly more rock ’n’ roll.

At Virginia City, the band took up a residency at the Red Dog Saloon playing six nights a week. Soon some hippies from the West Coast followed them there and a scene evolved. According to many accounts, right after their first gig, members of the band dropped LSD. Hunter also designed a poster to promote their gigs. The Seed as it was known, in later years was to become a cult item, and is considered to be the first psychedelic concert poster. Within a few years, Hunter would go on to design some of the iconic album covers from the flower-power era, including Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails.

The Red Dog Saloon gigs are also the beginnings of ‘liquid’ light shows that would be become de rigueur at San Francisco concerts halls featuring acid rock bands. The Charlatans’ music was not full-blown acid rock. It was a gentler sound with little of the feedback-fuelled jams that characterize the genre. But if you listen to Alabama Bound you can hear traces of the new frontiers that were opening up.

The good times didn’t last long though, and The Charlatans were run out of town by the Virginia City police. They returned to San Francisco to find that the music they had pioneered had been updated and taken over by other bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Unfortunately very little music was recorded by The Charlatans and these have appeared sporadically over the years. By 1968, their chance at musical immortality had passed them by, which is a pity.

Hiss, Crackle and Pop is a weekly blog on American roots and pop music on vinyl.

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