It’s unlikely that anyone would disagree that The 13th Floor Elevators are a really important band in the evolution of rock. Most would cite the band’s debut album as all the proof anyone could need to make the point:
“What is it which makes The Psychedelic Sound of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators a classic album?”
“Well, first, there’s ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me,’” may people would say quickly. “Just listen to that song; it’s hellfire and brimstone and weirdness wrapped tight into a perfect rock song. That’s all the explanation you should need – start there and you’ll see.”
Is that all one really needs though? Yes, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is The 13th Floor Elevators’ calling card song which put the band on the cultural map. Yes, it’s the first song (in some cases, the ONLY song) which helped a whole other generation discover the band thanks to its appearance on the High Fidelity soundtrack in 2000. Yes, it has been argued that the song is among a very small group of others which helped to inspire the “New Americana” movement, of which bands like The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers and The Civil Wars are members (to name only a few). Yes, the song is clearly an important passage in the Rock N’ Roll bible – but one song does not a classic album make – it’s just one song.
So what if we ignore “You’re Gonna Miss Me”? What if we were to ignore the song – pretend it doesn’t exist – and delve more deeply into the rest of the music on the album in order to ascertain if The Psychedelic Sound of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators is indeed a classic album and not just a vessel for one great song?
As “Roller Coaster” begins to warm up and work its way into the running of The Psychedelic Sound of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, listeners will really be struck by the number of sounds which all work so smoothly together, but previously stood separately when utilized by other artists. From moment one, “Roller Coaster” combines elements of surf rock with the darkness and isolation of space rock and the tight, simple production style often associated with garage and indie rock, and just mashes them together in a manner which was certainly intentional but also feels innocent; any seasoned band would keep the elements which appear in “Roller Coaster” separated because that “they just don’t go together” is regarded as common knowledge – but that it works so well here makes the performance perfectly hypnotic. It is because the darkness and fright in the song play so well with the howling Texas soul in Roky Erikson’s throat that listeners will be hooked. It shouldn’t work but it does – and listeners will listen all the harder to decide if what the band is doing here comes together intentionally or by the grandest sense of luck.
…And, as the album’s A-side progresses, the bait becomes the fact that there is no definitive answer to the “luck or intention” question forthcoming – but there are some great thrills to be found in the songs. The lighter, “Summer Of Love”-spinning ballad “Splash 1” proves not to actually be so light when one really listens (how else could one qualify a song which begins with the words, “I’ve seen your face before/ I’ve known you all my life” coupled with a winsome guitar figure?) suddenly takes an unexpected, darker hue early which is a bit of a shocker (the next line after those above is “And though it’s new/ Your image cuts me like a knife”) while “Reverberation” seeks to typify a “Down South Psychedelic” vibe (read: one can visualize dust devils blowing across a desolate expanse here) as the jug blowing which is present in every song on the album spontaneously becomes a little harrowing and worrisome before “Don’t Fall Down” brushes closest to a Summer Of Love number to close out the side.
Taking the A-side as a whole, it’s important to point out that while each of the songs present do reach in different directions (as outlined above), the sounds which give each song its personality – the jug, Erikson’s guitar and his voice – remain consistent. As far as the band may reach to present new ideas for each song, there’s no doubt that they’re always the same group at every turn and there is a vision behind what they’re doing.
The vision which powers the A-side becomes positively tangible on the B-side as soon as the siren which opens “Fire Engine” goes off. Forget about ‘unexpected and jarring,’ those terms don’t give the sound its due; with a power borne in part of a fire truck and in part of an air raid siren, “Fire Engine” will shake the unsuspecting to their core when the song opens, but Erikson’s guitar work which follows it upholds that energy too. Here, among incoherent yelps and howls (at first, and then a thoroughly nasal vocal melody from Erikson), the guitar figure flows in effortlessly and as inevitably as a tide and presents listeners with an impression which is both surreal and arid; like surfing on sand. There are lyrics in the song, but they’re basically irrelevant – listeners will be drawn more to the melody itself and really try to inhabit it; it sounds a little sick, a little stoned and a little flat, but listeners will be sold.
Just as it was on the A-side of The Psychedelic Sound of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, listeners will find they’re up for anything the B-side may have to offer after “Fire Engine” hooks them, and there proves to actually be more to love here than there was on the A-side. “Thru The Rhythm” brushes close to having a rewarding and danceable rhythm while “Kingdom of Heaven” slows down, gets really, really high and lets the jug almost resemble while sounds before “Monkey Island” sees Roky Erikson abandon his normal vocal register and turn in his best impression of Janis Joplin – and does it so well that it’s actually believable. After that, the 13th Floor Elevators turn in one final number which plays perfectly to the heart and soul of the Haight-Ashbury rock movement (a bit of Big Brother anda little early Grateful Dead rolled into one) and lets the record rest. Whether they know it or not, they’ve made their point by then and the manner in which “Tried to Hide” ends the B-side both ends the side solidly as well as leaving the door open just enough to have listeners going back to start the record all over again.
…And that’s the thing right there: listeners will go back to start the whole thing over again after having gone front-to-back with The Psychedelic Sound of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators because it is that good and it is that infectious. There’s no denying that “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a great song, but it is really just the cherry on top of The 13th Floor Elevators’ debut album; the other ten songs stand as a perfect document of a moment in their own right which makes the album a perfect classic – even now, fifty years after it was first released.