Sixties garage-rock history is littered with one-off albums and standalone singles whose creators burned bright before fading into obscurity. Collectively, they’re now the invigorating evidence of a vibrant, short-lived scene that paved the way for punk while also offering a bratty tangent to the burgeoning psychedelic movement. The Sonics, the Monks, the Seeds – all namechecked by the garage-rock agitators that followed in their wake, it took the most committed fans to do the detective work and discover more about the musicians behind the sounds. When the Music Machine released their single “Talk Talk,” in November 1966, a month ahead of their debut album, (Turn on) the Music Machine, they immediately took their place alongside these garage-rock legends.
Two minutes of pummeled drums, fuzzed-up guitar, head-spinning organ and frontman Sean Bonniwell’s snarling vocals - “Can’t seem to talk about/The things that bother me/Seems to be/What everybody has/Against me” – “Talk Talk” captured the perennial disaffection of younger generations who feel persecuted by adults that never seem to get it.
The song was recorded in just two takes and still explodes with all the energy of a band working in the white-hot crucible of creation. After “Talk Talk” became a surprise Top 20 hit, the Music Machine’s label, Original Sound, rushed the band back into the studio to try and recapture the lightning. On December 31st, (Turn on) the Music Machinehit the shelves. A mix of covers and Bonniwell-penned originals, it remains a fascinating insight into how these original garage-rock bands captured the zeitgeist before – seemingly inevitably – imploding. At just 32 minutes, almost half the album’s songs were covers apparently recorded with a view to gaining spins at an LA nightclub; among them were Neil Diamond’s “Cherry, Cherry,” the Beatles’ “Taxman” and Ma Rainey’s ’20s blues classic “See See Rider.” (Turn on) the Music Machine’s original numbers, however, capture the band at their best: complex, sometimes harrowing songs suggesting that, when The Music Machine flipped the switch, they were a unique proposition among a bunch of misfit bands.
The architect of the Music Machine discusses his songwriting process, and how “Talk Talk” “spread like a disease from outer space.”
“Bonniwell wasn’t into psychedelics. He didn’t smoke dope and he didn’t take LSD,” the keyboardist reveals, explaining why the Music Machine didn’t identify with their psychedelic contemporaries.
PopMatters makes the case that the Music Machine were “every bit as good and innovative” as their legendary contemporaries the Velvet Underground. Read and believe!
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Some Other Drum” - The rare Bonniwell original that doesn’t go for your throat, its lyrics are nevertheless in keeping with Bonniwell’s distressed worldview, even as the arrangement sounds like it wants to be a sunshine-pop song. Points the way to some of the more pronounced psychedelia of the band’s second – and final – album, The Bonniwell Music Machine.
“The People In Me” - Bonniwell’s non sequitur lyrics are perfectly matched by the band’s falling-apart-at-the-seams performance – fitting for a song that speaks to fractured psyches, as if predicting the hippie burn-out a full three years before the Rolling Stones’ Altamont Speedway Free Festival called an end to the ’60s.
“96 Tears” - ? and the Mysterians beat the Music Machine to it when they topped the Billboard Hot 100 with this garage-rock groove in August 1966. No matter. The Music Machine up the stakes with their version, Rhodes stabbing away at his keyboard and guitarist Mark Langdon roughing up ? and co’s effort with a scuzzy guitar line.
“Come On In” - Doug Rhodes’ cascading keyboard and drummer Ron Edgar’s jittery hi-hat set up a haunting number that finds Bonniwell at turns alluring and menacing. “Come on in, the water’s fine,” he promises as the track slinks to who-knows-where. “Don’t play hopscotch with your life, you little fool/… The steering wheel inside your head has come apart.” Is he offering safety or peril? This song should have closed the album.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Sean Bonniwell’s first band was a folk-rock trio called the Noblemen.
- After releasing a solo album in 1969, Sean Bonniwell became a self-proclaimed guru, stepping away from music to study Eastern mysticism and meditation.
- Having achieved cult-classic status, Bonniwell lived in relative obscurity up until his death in 2011, though he once claimed to have written over 300 songs after the Music Machine folded.
- The Music Machine’s cover of the Beatles’ “Taxman” alters George Harrison’s reference to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, instead namechecking then US President Lyndon Johnson.
- Avant-garde rock saboteurs the Residents covered a snippet of “Talk Talk” on their 1976 album, The Third Reich’n’Roll.
Listen to (Turn On) The Music Machine in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.
Words: Jason Draper