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Cult Rock Rules 

The Polyphonic Spree's got nothing on Ya Ho Wha

Wednesday, Jul 11 2007
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"We're gearing up for the evolution," claims Tim DeLaughter in anticipation of The Fragile Army the Polyphonic Spree's new disc.

Intentionally or not, DeLaughter sounds like a cult leader whenever he opens his mouth. Famed for their candy-colored choir robes, DeLaughter and his 20-odd followers come off like grinning rejects from Jesus Christ Superstar, crooning vaguely uplifting quotes from motivational speeches.

And that's the problem. The Spree's members are cuddly, unspecific, and look like Gap models. Unless you're an indie popper who thinks the height of irony is listening to your parents' LPs, the group's shtick is a whitewash. Everybody knows the fun in cult-watching comes from creepy rumors and outlandish behavior.

Although The Fragile Army sports the members' newfound edge, political stance, and attendant prison jumpsuits, the group still lacks the menace of unstoppable freaks like Mel Lyman and Father Yod. And there are plenty more hairies where they come from.

So go ahead - take a sniff from our cult-rock sampler. Just don't say you weren't warned.

The Manson Family

A decent songwriter, Charlie Manson is the Elvis of cult rock. He partied with Neil Young and the Beach Boys, whose "Never Learn Not to Love," a track on 1969's 20/20, is a rewrite of Manson's "Cease to Exist." Chaz even threatened to murder drummer Dennis Wilson for changing his lyrics.

In addition to a solo LP, 1970's Lie: The Love & Terror Cult, Charlie inspired his garbage-fed ranch girls, Squeaky Fromme and Sandy Good among them, to lay down some tracks in 1970. The Family Jams, a double CD released in 1997, features slow, inept dirges with campfire harmonies and amateur guitar.

As a man of ideas, Manson was zealous but typical: I am the living Jesus, the Beatles are speaking to me, etc. Nothing, however, says, "Dude, I'm in a band" quite like a swastika carved into the forehead. Apparently, Axl agreed. Guns N' Roses covered Manson's "Look at Your Game Girl" in 1993.

The Lyman Family

Mel Lyman doesn't make your mom drop the lasagna tray as fast as Manson, but he's no less fascinating. The twisted folkie first grabbed headlines when his long harmonica solo at the end of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival quelled the uprising prompted by Dylan's electric set.

Lyman eventually moved to Boston and discovered LSD — lots of it. Of course, this led to group sex, a family compound, and the recruitment of high-profile followers, including jug-band maestro Jim Kweskin. Lyman's family was well organized. Although they didn't murder anyone, they allegedly locked disobedient followers in a concrete cell without food.

Besides inspiring 1971's America, a spooky LP that finds Kweskin's jug band moaning as if possessed by ghosts, Lyman declared himself the living instantiation of God, whose primary goal was to scare the shit out of straight people. Tales of bank robberies and paramilitary raids swirl about Lyman and his family.

Jim Jones and the People's Temple

The People's Temple, led by Reverend James Warren Jones, is the most infamous commune of the 20th century. Kool-Aid was never the same after November 18, 1978.

The Temple's outreach cast a wide net, including a church basketball team and the People's Temple Choir. The cover photograph for the 1973 He's Able LP depicts a procession of men and women in robes who actually look like the Spree. DeLaughter, however, lacks Jones' tinted shades and overall Roy Orbison vibe.

The Choir jammed run-of-the-mill folk and gospel, but exhibited far more polish than most cults. They sang about nothing but positive social messages with zero flair — unless, of course, you count untrammeled naïveté.

Father Yod and the Source Family

Bearded vegetarian, group-sex advocate, and alleged shaman, Father Yod (aka Jim Baker) began collecting impressionable young hippies after a short apprenticeship with flower-power icon Yogi Bhajan.

Yod's gang ran a successful vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles, complete with white-robed waiters and a gift shop hawking records. Along with members of his Source Family, some 250 strong, Yod's bands Spirit of '76 and Ya Ho Wha 13 released no fewer than nine albums in the '70s. A couple more were even released after the Father died in a hang-gliding accident in 1975.

Deeply inept, the Ya Ho Wha collective aped early '70s Stones, explored tribal insanity, and echoed Yod's stance on topics like kindness toward carrots. The group's records also feature hefty contributions from Sky Saxon, of legendary garage rockers the Seeds.

Stylewise, DeLaughter should take note. Yod is god: naked girls lying on gold Rolls-Royces, Santa beards, white Steve Martin suits, and fringed cowboy outfits with matching Indian headbands.

All Saved Freak Band

In 1966, Cleveland piano dude and missionary Larry Hill reported visions that Asians were plotting war against whites and commies were running Australia. As a result, Hill grabbed a plot of land near Orwell, where he started collecting cows and guns while studying karate.

As part of his church's outreach program, Hill and several followers played murky folk. They then recruited Cleveland guitar hero Glenn Schwartz and helped pioneer Christian rock. The All Saved Freak Band's debut LP, My Poor Generation, came out in 1973.

Conflicting stories abound, but things clearly turned sour when Schwartz's family hired a cult deprogrammer to kidnap him. But the former James Gang guitarist ran right back to the farm after a brief hospital stint.

The ASFB's later history is soaked in misery. No fewer than three members of the band died in car accidents on the way to concerts. One guy lost his hands from electrocution, but stayed on as an arranger. In 1976, the ASFB released For Christians, Elves and Lovers, an utterly strange LP, fusing Tolkien, progressive folk, and Christianity. The Polyphonic Spree can only dream of producing such a relic.

About The Author

Angela Sawyer

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