Play it again, Sam



Tucked away deep in the recesses of the iTunes store, I found a 2-CD compilation named The Psychedelic Salvage Company. In it was a set full of songs by bands that I’d barely heard of. Dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, these were bands that were part of the British underground wave of psychedelic rock during those two decades but not quite the ones I was familiar with. Instead of Pink Floyd, Traffic, Cream or Soft Machine, this compilation had bands such as Toby Jug, Peggy’s Leg, Out of Darkness, Ptolomy Psycon, The Roland Kovac Set, and Sam Gopal. Strangely named bands all of them but with one common thread: they made music that sounds deliriously trippy. Music that immediately conjures up images of groovy bell-bottoms, peace signs, platform shoes and droopy moustaches. They have another common factor: all of those bands are among the early vanguard of the British prog-rock movement.

It all began with a quest for Sam Gopal in the beautiful  Swedish city of Gothenburg. Last summer, while ambling around in Haga, the once rough but now-gentrified suburb of Gothenburg, we went browsing in a quaint little shop called Iris Second Hand, which sells vintage second-hand clothes (great stuff, actually), where I heard something vaguely familiar playing in the background but I just couldn’t put my finger on what band it was. It definitely was psychedelic Sixties fare but what exactly was it? I went across to the two long-haired guys at the counter in front and asked and they said it was Sam Gopal. “Oh, okay,” I said, nodding my head knowledgeably in what I’m sure was a completely failed attempt to mask my ignorance. In reality, a) I had never heard of Sam Gopal; b) I simply loved the track that they were playing; and, c) it was something that I knew I simply had to have.

The Doors’ version of Back Do or Man pales before Sam Gopal’s tabla-fortified one

The Doors’ version of Back Do or Man pales before Sam Gopal’s tabla-fortified one

The track, I discovered later, was called Yesterlove, and the distinguishing part of its sound was the unmistakably Indian sound of the tabla and the dreamy, transcendental vocals. The Internet led me to learn about Sam Gopal: that the band was named after its founder who was born in Malaysia and whose singer, known as Lemmy, was the same guy who founded the early heavy metal band, Motörhead; and that the band was formed in 1966 in London but was shortlived and probably disbanded by 1970. That’s about all I could find about the very Indian-sounding band and its founder.

Sam Gopal’s sound – mellow psychedelia with hardly a rough edge –should ideally be heard in an old-fashioned LP version

Sam Gopal’s sound – mellow psychedelia with hardly a rough edge –should ideally be heard in an old-fashioned LP version

Thus, began my search for Sam Gopal’s music. I’d read that they had just one album to their credit and it was called Escalator but it was no easy task trying to get my hands on it. That’s how I came across The Psychedelic Salvage Company compilation. It was a fortuitous find but it yielded a whole bunch of new bands that gave me a peek into the kind of music that must’ve been playing in the UK psych circuit in the 1960s and ’70s from bands that never quite made the charts but very clearly wrote their influence on the psychedelic wave that emerged. The standouts in the compilation include, besides Sam Gopal (who have two tracks on it), the Roland Kovac Set whose two tracks have some satisfyingly fuzzy lead guitar riffs and extra length in terms of play time.

Not all of the Salvage Company tracks are great, several are quite forgettable, but as a novelty piece in your collection, especially if you’re a Floyd, Cream, Traffic or even The Who fan, it’s a collectible.

After a few weeks of looking around, I finally found Escalator, ostensibly Sam Gopal’s one and only album. Thirteen tracks, including Yesterlove, the song I’d heard in Haga’s Iris, of course, but also a cover of Willie Dixon’s Back Door Man. The Doors may have made that song famous but that celebrated (and over-played) version pales before Sam Gopal’s tabla-fortified one.

The bands on this album were the early vanguard of the British prog-rock movement

The bands on this album were the early vanguard of the British prog-rock movement

Sam Gopal’s sound is one of mellow psychedelia with hardly a rough edge. Their traditional guitar-keyboards-bass combo has no drums but a flourish of the tabla that gives it an exotic edge. All 13 tracks on Escalator are good ones that work nicely on an audio system as well on the headphones but I think it’s the kind of music that ought to be listened to in an old-fashioned LP version with a few crackles and rumbles. After all, they’re a band from the mid-1960s. Sadly, I haven’t managed to lay my hands on one of those. It’s a pity that Sam Gopal didn’t last too long. And I don’t know whether there are any other recordings besides Escalator in existence. I’d love to know if anyone can tell me.

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