Listen to This: A Guide to The Red Crayola/Red Krayola


The Red Crayola on Forty-FiveThis is a guide to the recorded music of The Red Crayola/Red Krayola — abbreviated as RC or RK.  Releases are arranged chronologically by recording date (not release date), broken up into rough “eras”.  The groupings correspond to major shifts in the geographic location of the band.  A legend is provided, as are recording credits, where available.

A Brief History

The Red Crayola (sometimes spelled “The Red Krayola”) are an exceptionally long-lived rock band.  Their origins were in the psychedelic mid-/late-1960s, formed in Texas by university students engaged with the burgeoning countercultural movement.  The band broke up and reformed, and then effectively dissolved by the end of the 1960s.  But Mayo Thompson, who worked in the visual arts (he was an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg) and also dabbled with a solo career, resurrected the band name in the mid-1970s.  For about fifty years Thompson continued the band in various incarnations across different continents.  In the later 70s and through all of the 80s, the band was based out of Europe, then returned to the United States permanently in the early 90s.  The always band fit into the musical “underground”, and was never about commercial success.  Mayo Thompson endorsed one critic’s description of the band’s music as “not practical”.  Actually, the band’s political outlook became explicitly leftist/communist.  But they tended to rely on wacky, dadaist humor and “performance art” techniques, eschewing virtuoso performance.  The band frequently emphasized equal sharing of credit, regardless of contributions, so many releases intentionally do not credit individual songwriters, or even which musicians appear on which songs playing which instruments (a practice that ended only with Introduction in 2006).  This was part of an over-arching inclusionist sensibility.

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The Red Krayola – Hazel


The Red KrayolaHazel Drag City DC98CD (1996)

The Red Krayola (originally, The Red Crayola) were formed in the late 1960s and quickly became one of the most forward-thinking rock groups of their era.  Their debut album, The Parable of Arable Land, is rather unimpressive, and didn’t yet establish the group’s (mostly) unique approach to music.  A significant problem with the debut is that it alternates between “songs” by the band and free-form hippie freakouts performed with random hangers on who showed up at the recording studio.  This highlights an important error in the goals of the band — and like-minded musicians — early on.  While there is a catharsis involved in participating in free-form musical freakouts, and there is something to be said — on paper at least — for conveying to audiences that free-form freakouts are possible and desirable, why bother to record them and release the recordings on an album?  This latter question gets glossed over.  But it is the crux of the problem.  The freakouts have little or no listening value to audiences.  Never fear though!  Upon some urging from their record label, their second album [after an intended follow-up, Coconut Hotel, was rejected by their label], God Bless The Red Krayola and All Who Wail With It, established the a new and different format that provided an answer to the the lingering question from the first album while still realizing the band’s basic objectives.  As Mayo Thompson once put it, “God Bless picks its way through the rubble looking for feeling and meaning, senses of share.”

First off, what were the band’s objectives?  This question can be best explained in relation to historical context.  The late 1960s were the time of the so-called “New Left”, when left-leaning politics were on the rise and, in the United States and Western Europe, were increasingly centered around students (college students mostly).  The band was named The Red Crayola, then changed their name to The Red Krayola (after a largely baseless legal threat from a crayon manufacturer), but kept the word “Red” in the name all along.  This was not coincidence or an arbitrary choice of color.  The band named themselves in reference to the color historically associated with the political left.  The band’s objective remained “musical socialism”.

With the understanding that there was an explicitly leftist political slant to The Red Krayola’s music, their musical techniques can be better understood against the larger backdrop of Twentieth Century art history.  Many artists in a variety of media who have sought to pursue leftist ends have adopted techniques that revolve around the use of “montage”.  This includes cinematic montage, photomontage, dadism (and offshoots from surrealism to pop art to fluxus,  assorted neo-dadaism and even culture jamming), literary endeavors from the Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto) to “cut ups”, and more.

The term “montage” has been used to describe a number of different musical practices, not all of them similar to The Red Krayola’s, and often in the context of a substantively different “collage” approach.  So, here I will use my own term “Diogenic Montage,” in reference to the cynic philosopher Diogenes, whose shamelessly insolent yet witty and outspoken approach to critiquing the powerful has a close kinship with the specific style at hand.  (This might equally be called “Kynicist Montage” after Peter Sloterdijk‘s term “kynicism”). Just to illustrate what the philosopher Diogenes stood for, there is a story about him being sold into slavery in Crete, and the slave auctioneer asked what Diogenes was proficient in.  He replied, “In ruling men.”  He then added, “Sell me to this man [Xeniades]; he needs a master.”  The essence of “Diogenic Montage” is to deploy multivalent meanings in a way that is both reverent and irreverent at the same time, with an affinity for the use of “kitsch” and things considered “lowbrow” or in “bad taste” in a framework in which some thing else is either present or suggested, thereby subverting the very basis for highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow distinctions.  There is typically banal ridicule offered, and aspects of French playwright/actor Antonin Artaud‘s “Theater of Cruelty” find their way in as well, although humor appears more often than shocking “cruelty” and Bertolt Brecht‘s “epic theater” might make a closer comparison in The Red Krayola’s instance at least.

One journalist recounted a joke Mayo Thompson frequently told that quite succinctly sums up the kind of humor found in The Red Krayola’s approach to music:

“There’s an anecdote that Red Krayola singer-guitarist Mayo Thompson likes to tell about philosopher of science Sydney Morgenbesser. ‘He’s at some philosophical conference,’ Thompson begins, ‘and some linguist is up there saying, ‘A double negative is always a positive, but there’s no language where a double positive is a negative,’ and Morgenbesser calls out from the back: ‘Yeah, yeah.'”

Diogenic Montage emphasizes symbolic and cultural content, not simply literal and explicit materials, which is why the approach is different from, say, the use of samples in hip-hop music (which could fall in the category, but doesn’t necessarily do so just by the use of samples).  Put another way, this is not merely a mechanical technique of juxtaposing and pasting together different elements in any manner, but rather is about pasting together certain elements in certain ways in order to ridicule the supposed “truth” of the referenced/appropriated symbolic content and expose the egotistical self-interest and tautological claims to power behind its conventional use.  This was very much the approach of the Berlin faction of the dadaists who utilized photomontage techniques “as a subversion of the myth of the photograph as truth.”  This results in the reuse or re-deployment of existing constructs in a different value system, thereby demonstrating the implied symbolic meaning of the “acceptable”/mainstream/official sources.  There is a naive/childish/insolent attitude of announcing publicly what is — from the viewpoint of the powerful and dominant — mutually agreed to be kept out of explicit public discourse.  In this way it reveals the hidden foundations of power embedded in such practices and exposing them to discussion — and ridicule.  What this accomplishes is the dissolution of the separation between levels.  Rather than there being separate public and private views, they are merged and important positions necessary for functioning of the entire system cannot be hidden away from public scrutiny in a purely private arena.

As Mayo Thompson once put it in an interview:

“With this tension between revolutionary thought and revolutionary practice, there’s always a kind of contradiction. After a while I realised that for my own purposes the contradiction was in keeping with that Left idea, to jack up the volume of the contradictions. Make them sharper, make ’em deeper, make ’em tougher, make ’em harder, make ’em more real, make ’em more powerful, make ’em inescapable, undeniable.”

But he also added:

“Pop songs are really free-standing things, and they can be surrounded by other things which are unlike them. Life’s a jukebox. Programme it. Have fun.”

One of the fathers of the “New Left”, the western marxist C. Wright Mills was described as endorsing precisely the sorts of elements that ended up in this music by Michael Denning in his book The Cultural Front.  Denning discussed the gradual break-up of the socialist “Cultural Front” in the mid-Twentieth Century and the eventual emergence of the “New Left” in its place, explaining how Mills advocated and endorsed a kind of synthesis of some of the otherwise antagonistic hack, commercial and avant-garde elements of the older Cultural Front in an effort to “repossess” cultural apparatuses (including media institutions).  They key was to see artists as working with elements that are not entirely individualist and within their exclusive control.  These sorts of concepts gained a lot of traction within the New Left movement.  Mills’  comments very much look forward to the sort of music made by The Red Krayola.

Another reference point would be the work of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who wrote The Social Construction of Reality.  Berger in particular was a political conservative who spent most of the rest of his career fighting against the use of his theories by the New Left.  Though much of the theory became obsolete, in a sense, when the leftist French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu rose to prominence in the 1970s and combined a similar theory that revolved around the concepts of “habitus” and different kinds of “capital” (all formulated within a framework heavily influenced by Einstein‘s theory of relativity and Maxwell‘s equations), with novel quantitative/statistical methods.  For that matter, Berger and Luckmann’s sociological theory ended up being slightly redundant with the work of French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan from the 1950s.

Just to drive home how this is typically a politically leftist approach to art and music, consider these words from V. I. Lenin‘s last article in Pravda before his death, “Better Fewer, But Better” (March 4, 1923):

“Indeed, why not combine pleasure with utility?  Why not resort to some humourous or semi-humorous trick to expose something ridiculous, something harmful, something semi-ridiculous, semi-harmful, etc.?”

That is really quite close to the frame of mind needed to appreciate The Red Krayola’s music.  There is much more than just the tiniest particle of the old in their music, but the the band certainly uses the ridiculous and the humorous to piece together something new and useful out of bits of the old.  It is above all a battle for meaning.  They wanted all new meaning.  And they were building an aesthetic dimension out of old trashy musical elements!

These points rely upon a recognition of something often lost in ordinary discourse.  Some people divide statements and beliefs into a binary classification of objective and subjective, with objective things being beyond or outside that of individual people and with subjective things being entirely in the head of individuals.  But this is overly simplistic.  There are also social constructs, which are socially determined beyond the control of any one individual person, but nonetheless are socially arbitrary and not “objective” scientific facts — this idea has a parallel in the so-called “Veblenian dichotomy” of institutional economics.  It is precisely in this realm of “social constructs” that The Red Krayola’s music directed most of its effort.

The Red Krayola certainly weren’t the only musicians attempting something along these lines.  Similar approaches appear in Brazilian Tropicália (Tom Zé, Rogério Duprat), psychedelic folk (Godz), some Krautrock (Faust), British Canterbury Scene rock (Robert Wyatt), certain indie rock (early Beck) and Hypnagogic Pop (Ariel Pink‘s Haunted Graffiti), and even avante garde composition (Charles Ives, Van Dyke Parks), etc. Of particular note is the fact that The Mothers of Invention were possibly the first rock/pop group to have dabbled in this, with inconsistent results.  Mayo Thompson specifically credits Frank Zappa (of The Mothers of Invention) with being one of the first to employ this approach in the rock/pop music realm.  Yet Zappa didn’t stick with the approach.  Thompson stated in an interview,

“Zappa started off, and his records were handled as comedy, the labels that he dealt with.  Zappa is like an analog for us in a certain sense.  He also, I think, thought hippies were stupid and foolish, and kidding themselves, and congratulating themselves on how hip they were, but only by keeping their eyes closed, not noticing what anybody else was doing.  At the same time, he recognizes that humor was one of his most powerful devices.  But it ate at him to the point that he wanted actually to be taken seriously.  So that became more important to him than anything.

“I would say that the difference between me and the people (from past underground rock movements) is that I have no commitments to any one form, or style, or anything else like that.  I’m interested in music because it’s self-activating, to some extent.  I’m interested in art — the democratic aspect of it.  I don’t mean like, gee whiz, democracy, either.  I mean like democracy as democratic expression of a sense of individual human beings getting their own crap together.”

When it comes to the music on Hazel, it is clearly an update on the style of God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It.  Mayo Thompson has said — maybe not entirely accurately — that every theoretical innovation he and The Red Krayola devised was already articulated in the 1960s:

“In terms of what passes for theory in music, with regard to material potential, I think I did all my theoretical work on musical possibility in the ’60s. The first five records sum up everything I ever had to say in theoretical terms.”

What is amazing is not the just the durability of the God Bless style, which still sounds ahead of the curve roughly three decades later, but that the band is able to use the same conceptual style while heeding the passage of almost thirty years worth of pop music.  Hazel doesn’t rely on all the same bits of source music as God Bless the Red Krayola — though some things bear similarities, like the atonal, sing-speak female vocals (like the second tracks on each album: “Duck & Cover” here, “Music” on God Bless).  There is much more emphasis here on easy listening music.  That ends up being the crazy glue (pun very much intended) that holds all this together.  There was an interview with Iman on some TV talk show long ago, and she discussed how her husband David Bowie would sing at home all the time.  Though she corrected the host by saying that rather than his famous songs he would sing nonsense, just little mundane melodies.  In other words, pure kitsch.  That is precisely the kind of old musical source The Red Krayola mine on Hazel.  It is evident on songs like “I’m so Blasé” and “Duke of Newcastle.”

From a process standpoint, these songs were built up through the contributions of the assorted performers in a way that resembled the surrealist exquisite corpse parlor game, in which a story is assembled by each participant sequentially adding something, usually only aware of the immediately prior contributor’s material rather than the whole.  David Grubbs said in an interview,

“Frequently, it was like an exquisite corpse game where somebody lays something down, then somebody else overdubs on that, one at a time. Each song grew into these absolutely strange, collage-like creations.”

The band also followed a strictly collective approach.  Regardless of who contributed what, every song is credited only to the entire group, collectively.  Emphasis on specific individual contributions and hierarchy was discouraged.

A few of the songs here have start-stop structures, without any sort of syncopation (just as on God Bless) .  “Decaf the Planet” and “5123881” are examples.  Though this shows up in parts of other songs too (“GAO,” “Boogie,” etc.).  On the other hand, some songs are built principally around grooves and repeating riffs, like “Larking,” “Hollywood” and “Another Song, Another Satan.”

The use of folk music elements is something new for The Red Krayola.  “Falls” has a banjo solo.  There is a fair amount of acoustic guitar throughout the album too.

Hazel is one of The Red Krayola’s finest albums.  It delivers (serious) lyrics about leftist politics with (unserious) cartoonish vocal affectations, and dissembles and adds noise to old musical elements that aren’t as politically neutral as they seem.  This is above all music that gains meaning from dynamic movement.  Any one element might be subject to multiple interpretations, and the movement in the context of the songs and album as a whole make clear that meaning is flexible, relative.  The Red Krayola do their best to fashion a utopian leftist vision of a vaguely classless society where musicians can do whatever they want, and fashion their own meaning.

The Red Krayola – The Red Krayola

The Red Krayola

The Red KrayolaThe Red Krayola Drag City DC52CD (1994)

The Red Krayola re-formed in the mid-1990s.  Mayo Thompson was joined by a host of Chicago musicians, who were associated with groups like Gastr del Sol and Tortoise.  The first album by this particular version of the band, the eponymous The Red Krayola, turns out to be one of the most approachable albums of the band’s more than 50 year existence.  It draws from the “post-rock” and indie/college rock trends of the day without ever really being beholden to them.  The songs are short, but they are mostly real “songs” in the conventional sense — not always a given for this band.

This is certainly strange, left-field rock, but it might be the most listenable album with the band’s name on it.  That is due not just to the songwriting but also to the presence of overtly “rock” style drumming (by John McEntire) and plenty of guitar solos that would fit — only slightly awkwardly — on an alt/indie/grunge rock recording of the day.  This still maintains the warped humor the band has long been known for.  Take “I Knew It.”  The lyrics consist of the statement “I knew it” repeated over and over and over and over again.  The vocals seem electronically manipulated to eventually speed up and overlap — a bit like Steve Reich‘s epochal “Come Out.”  It is a fantastic combination of obsessive, ominous compulsive chanting and I-told-you-so snarkiness.

I was rooting for “Raspierre” — a song about Maximilien Robespierre (“The Incorruptable”), one of the Jacobin leaders of the French Revolution — which hearkens back to the prior decade’s Art & Language collaborations like Kangaroo? that used non-sequitur left-wing political sloganeering over music.  But it is more in line with Red Krayola’s early 1980s material, and would have been better replaced with “T (I, II)” from the following year’s tepid EP Amor and Language.  The next few songs “(“Stand-Up” and “Art-Dog”) are also among the weakest on the album.  These are, however, minor points overall.

If The Red Krayola resembles any of the band’s other recordings, it would have to be some of the punk/post-punk stuff from the late 1970s and early ’80s, like the EP Micro-Chips & Fish and the soundtrack single “Born in Flames.”  Which is to say that this has more tangible rock drive than many of their other recordings, which are far more abstract and conceptual.  Yet The Red Krayola is steeped in the sort of music that indie-rock and so-called post-rock groups were making contemporaneously.  So it has its own texture and feel.  This is one of my go-to Red Krayola albums, up there in the top tier somewhere.

The Red Crayola – Malefactor, Ade

Malefactor, Ade

The Red Crayola – Malefactor, Ade Glass GLALP 035 (1989)

Malefactor, Ade is a bit of an odd album even in the catalog of a band that was strange from the very beginning.  On the one hand, parts of this bear resemblances to the “performance art” music of Laurie Anderson, the open-minded ambitions of the so-called “Rock in Opposition” bands, and there are still remnants of the funky no-wave punk that The Red Crayola had pursued (often in collaboration with the art collective Art & Language) over the prior decade, now more minimalist in delivery.  But on the other hand, this is music that is built up from surprisingly non-musical elements.  Often these songs are just a bunch of bloops, bleeps and banging, with sing-speak vocals on top, a single guitar and some drums or cheap synthesizer keyboards that point towards melody, or the semblance of melody.  The lyrics draw on non-sequitur humor.  This points towards an effort to place the musical and the non-musical on equal footing — a nod towards a universalist political philosophy.  These sorts of elements also point toward the music made by the re-formed group (back under the spelling Red Krayola) in the United States in the mid-1990s, which was more surrealist and linked to the “post-rock” scene.  There are some “jazzier” instrumental bits too.  So, this should be viewed as a transitional album.  This is one more for the converted than newcomers, but it is a solid little album and one that is much better than its reputation suggests.

The Red Krayola – Introduction


The Red KrayolaIntroduction Drag City DC309 (2006)

There might be no other rock and roll band that has continued for so long, gone through so many reinventions and still managed to turn out good or great albums.  Entering the band’s fourth decade (!), The Red Krayola offer up the humorously titled Introduction.  It’s filled with a lot more straightforward pop/rock than you might expect.  But it’s all well-crafted, well-written, and well-executed.

The Red Krayola – God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It

God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It

The Red KrayolaGod Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It International Artists IA LP 7 (1968)

Of all the inventive rock music of the tail end of the 1960s, God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It has the distinction of being one that still sounds revolutionary almost 50 years later.  The songs (some can barely be called “songs” as such) mock contemporary rock and pop trends.  Sometimes typical 1960s vocal pop choruses are presented, but a cappella (“Music,” “Sherlock Holmes”).  The drums occasionally react to the other instruments rather than provide a propulsive, syncopated beat (“Say Hello to Jamie Jones”).  Other songs are self-consciously disorganized, with the musicians playing at different tempos, completely out of sync (“Save the House,” “Sheriff Jack,” “The Jewels of the Madonna”).  “Listen to This” consists of the spoken announcement, “Listen to this,” followed by a staccato plunking of a single key on the piano, totaling all of eight seconds.  The shameless insolence of Diogenes does come to mind.  There are some vaguely catchy, if abstract and angular, riffs and melodies here and there (“Dairarymaid’s Lament,” “Leejol,” “Dirth of Tilth,” “Tina’s Gone to Have a Baby”).  They end up being yet another unpredictable facet of the album, confounding expectations that can’t even categorically deny “conventional” rock.  None of the varied, strange devices dominates the album.  While that factor might explain while opinions are mixed, and why this has never really been assimilated into mainstream rock aside from a few punk and post-rock outfits, it also suggests why the movement of the late 1960s counterculture as a whole failed, because stuff like this never caught on.  People tended to cling to the stuff that was more salable, collapsing the movement back into those discrete aspects that fit best within the pre-existing paradigm.  But God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It didn’t fit that paradigm.  It still is a remarkably fresh and inventive album.  While the power centers of society may have pushed back against the 1960s counterculture, trying to prove that consumerism and nuclear families are the only viable options, The Red Krayola left behind artifacts like this, a surviving rebuttal that couldn’t quite be absorbed and co-opted.  Texan acts like labelmates The 13th Floor Elevators, but also the likes of Jandek and Ornette Coleman, seemed to have a way of not just taking chances, but trying to casually either make the Earth move or take leave of it entirely.  They reframed the concept of what a safe and secure life meant, placing within a collaborative dialog the possibility of chance, variation, and individuality.  But few were as irreverently funny as The Red Krayola.