Discover more from Listening Sessions
Excavating a Sixties Nugget
Going deep on the Sot Weed Factor
We have Lenny Kaye to thank for the idea of Nuggets. It all started with the 1972 double LP compilation Kaye, a musician, rock writer and record-store clerk, put together for Elektra Records: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968. A survey of the musical explosion of the mid-1960s, in particular, garage and psychedelic rock as well as baroque pop, Nuggets spawned countless sequels cataloguing the unforgettable as well as the forgotten of one of the most exciting and creative periods in music history.
I was recently thinking about the concept of Nuggets when a song started playing on my Spotify from one of my playlists. It started off with a guitar riff that was soon joined by a wailing harmonica. As the lead singer began to sing, I glanced over to see what the song was. It sounded like an outtake from Safe as Mike, Captain Beefhart and his Magic Band’s stunning debut record. It wasn’t. The song was ‘Say It Isn’t So’ by a band called the Sot Weed Factor.
It’s a classic garage-rock Nugget with psychedelic swirls, especially the abrupt switch in tempo at the end of each verse. But who were the Sot Weed Factor? What else did they record? I decided to some digging.
Discogs had the first big answer. The Sot Weed Factor were a band based out of Tucson, Arizona that formed in 1964 and recorded one single in 1967. ‘Say It Isn’t So’ was the B-side, ‘Bald Headed Woman’ was the A-side, an old traditional blues song recorded by such bands as the Kinks and the Who. I know it through Harry Belafonte’s recording in 1960 on Swing Dat Hammer, his concept album of prison work songs.
What distinguishes the Sot Weed Factor’s version is the gradual increase in tempo throughout. It is far less memorable than its B-side.
Neither side of the single is over two minutes. In fact, the total recorded output of the band runs a mere three minutes, 54 seconds.
The single was released on Original Sound Records in September 1967 and was produced by Brian Ross—both producer and label are best-known for the Music Machine’s ‘Talk Talk,’ a textbook example of a musical Nugget. According to this short item (virtually the only information on the Sot Weed Factor found online and it says nothing about whether the band was named after John Barth’s epic novel), it was a regional hit in Tucson and did make radio playlists nationally but not the national charts.
The Sot Weed Factor were an edgy band—punk before punk was a thing, and were decidedly not fans of their lone single. After moving to Los Angeles, crummy management led to the band quickly folding. Only one member of the band, George Arntz, who is co-credited for ‘Bald-Headed Woman’ and the sole writer of ‘Say It Isn’t So,’ has an additional credit on Discogs for the equally obscure the Marshmellow Overcoat. That’s it.
The Sot Weed Factor in one short paragraph: one single, a few scant details and one song, ‘Say It Isn’t So,’ that forms a small part of the incredible trove of mid-1960s Nuggets. Ready for discovery for the first time.
The ‘A Day in the Life’ mystery that may not be: Are you like me and had always assumed that John Lennon sang the wordless, trippy part starting at 2:48 that leads to the third verse of the Beatles’ epic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band closer? This viral tweet suggests our certainty may be misplaced. Could we have been wrong all these years? Could it actually be Paul that we hear? The Globe and Mail’s Brad Wheeler has an excellent write-up on this and quizzes some of Canada’s finest for their thoughts.
As for me, it was a perfect excuse to re-listen to ‘A Day in the Life’ and give it some thought. I first dug out my mono reissue on vinyl to hear it on headphones. The vocal is buried in the mix but, particularly at the beginning, it does sound like John. As we get closer to the beginning of the third verse, it gets harder to hear the vocal against the Beatles and the orchestra. I then listened to the 50th anniversary stereo remix on CD—here, the vocal is far higher up in the mix—and least to my ears, it’s unmistakable that it’s John singing—the slightly nasal, thin and lysergic tone mirrors his vocal throughout the rest of the song. As with the mono mix, once the orchestra comes in, it gets harder to hear—there is a lot of sonic information to take in and perhaps, that’s what’s led some to question whether what most of us have always thought we have heard may not be the case.
As far as I stand, though, my ears are unchanged: it’s John singing. What do you hear?
Roger Hawkins’ Land of 1000 Dances: If I ever had to put together a list of my Desert Island Discs—the eight records I would take to a desert island with me—it would be an agonizing task except for one record: Wilson Pickett’s ‘Land of 1000 Dances.’ That would be an automatic pick. I remember the first time I heard it on the radio when I was very young and was mesmerized by the relentless rhythm of the record, especially the two breaks with Pickett singing “Naaaaaaa-naa-naa-naa-naa. Naa-naa-naa-naa. Naa-naa-naa. Naa-naa-naa. Naa-naa-naa-naaaaaa.’ Only the drums accompany Pickett here—funky, in-the-pocket, relentless and, did I mention, funky. Much later I learned who was behind the kit: Roger Hawkins, who passed away on May 20 at age 75.
Hawkins was an indispensable part of the Muscle Shoals sound of FAME Studios. The number of records that his drum work elevates are too numerous to mention but I did want to highlight Aretha Franklin’s ‘Chain of Fools.’
Hawkins lays down a profoundly soulful beat—particularly in the force in which he anchors the beat through the snare. Listen at 2:10 how he withholds the snare until the off-beat and then lays down a series of bombs to anchor Aretha’s vocal, at 3:19 he does a similar thing (here you can almost visualize the sound of the chain Aretha is singing about hitting the floor) and then releases the coiled-up tension by moving to the ride cymbal. Nothing flashy here—just deeply intuitive and soulful musicianship. That was Roger Hawkins.