Of Snail Trails, Hawkwind, and Snakeskin: The Strange Saga of the Melodic Energy Commission

by • May 24, 2017 • BC Music History, BC Musicians, Current Issue, Front PageComments (0)344


You’ve probably seen their albums on the wall at Neptoon or Zulu — privately pressed Vancouver obscurities, these days usually fetching in the neighbourhood of $100.

Though both came out in runs of 1000, the one with the blue cover — 1980’s Migration of the Snails — is a smidgen easier to find than its greenish predecessor, Stranger in Mystery, from 1979. Migration’s cover features a group of smiling counterculture types, male and female, peering through what appears to be the curved opening of a conch, or perhaps a gigantic snail shell. It looks too damn weird to be an ordinary rock album, but — you theorize, standing there in the record store, peering at the cover for clues — if it were just some latter-day hippie avant-garde experiment, with no rock content, it probably wouldn’t fetch so high a price. So what the hell is it — psych? Prog? Electronica?

Your uncertainty will only deepen if you spin it, and discover that besides guitars and drums and synths, there are instruments from all over the world, from dulcimers to kalimbas, tablas to flutes, bass harmonica to Theremin. There is indeed a hippie avant-gardism to it — a flowing, hallucinogenic drift — but there is also a compelling pulse. Plus there’s a hint of legendary American weirdos the Residents in the gnomic vocals (and lyrics which actually do seem to revolve around snails).

And wait a second — Del Dettmar plays the Delatron? Like — the Del Dettmar, the synth player from Hawkwind, who you hear jamming with Lemmy and company on Space Ritual: he’s the guy with the beard?

What IS this album, you wonder; who were these guys; and — why snails?

Asked the question, bandleader Don Xaliman giggles happily in his East Van home studio. “They’re slow!” he says, shrugging. “I don’t know why snails, but Doug and the Slugs were around at the time. And I was into promotion: I took this stencil called ‘snail trail’ and went around the city spray painting it onto sidewalks and stuff, like, ‘if snails want to migrate, go that way! Stay on the sidewalks.’”

Plus, Xaliman adds, “an article appeared just as we released it in the Sun about how there was an infestation of European brown snails in Kitsilano, which kind of fit somehow.” (The article ends up photocopied as one of the inserts for the album, along with a poster and lyric sheet). “Also, Del was from England” — specifically Deptford, in South London, before he relocated to BC in the 1970’s. “So that kind of had a bit of influence, because the map inside has arrows coming from England.”

The cover art and poster are by science fiction artist Tim Hammell, and have an otherworldly, SF feel. “The album was supposed to open up,” so that the conch-like curve the band is peering through becomes “the eyes of the beast in the poster,” Xaliman explains. “But it was too expensive to do.”

The idea was for there to be compositions by all the members of the band — described in the liner notes as a “loose-knit wrapper” of like minds, also including long-time collaborator George McDonald, on Theremin, who has known Xaliman long enough that the two saw the Velvet Underground perform at the Retinal Circus, back in 1968; and multi-instrumentalist Randy Raine-Reusch, who is presently relocated to Texas with his partner, zheng player Mei Han.

Other members included Hawkwind/ Pink Fairies/ Brian Eno collaborator Paul Rudolph, as well as Mark and Paul Franklin, John Murray, Ross White, Gerald Toon, and Kathy Yearwood, the girl wearing face paint on the cover.

“We said, like, ‘okay everyone, go write something about snails,’” Xaliman says. “I’m not sure who wrote what, but everyone has a composition. Del wrote ‘Escargot.’”

Xaliman has long been active, locally, in music and recording engineering. “I ended up running a studio for some people in Victoria — I was the engineer on Nomeansno’s Sex Mad,” he reports. He also has a background, as a young man, in doing light shows for “local bands in halls throughout the Fraser Valley and Vancouver.” Those led to his getting involved in video; he estimates he has recorded audio-video for “about one hundred” concert and dance performances around Vancouver.

But while much of Xaliman’s work in recent years has been projects for hire, slowly and surely, his energies, these days, are returning to his own band.

“Lately I’ve been looking at this stuff and getting enthused about presenting it to people,” he says. “We’ve got five or six albums” that could be put out. Besides a new (double?) CD that he is slowly assembling in the room where we sit, there are the two private press LPs, two songs on the Vancouver Independence comp, a later 7 inch, and two more recent Melodic Energy Commission CD projects, Time is a Slippery Concept — from 2005 — and 2013’s Wave Packet. (Moonphase Compendium, also on CD, gathers digital versions of Stranger In Mystery and Migration of the Snails, and can sometimes be found with the local discs at Neptoon.)

In the middle of all that, Xaliman tells me, there’s also a “lost” third album, M=E/C2 — “Melody over Energy equals Consciousness, squared,” Xaliman explains — which was recorded at the same sessions as the 7 inch and compilation album songs, but only ever briefly released on a low-run cassette distributed out of Scotland.

“I wasn’t really happy with the mixes at the time. I do like the music,” Xaliman says. “Robin Spurgin at Psi-Chord pretty much donated his time and invited us in to record an album. We recorded it, we mixed it there, but it was all really quick. And he had an 8 track, one inch machine, 30 IPS, then he sold it, and there was no other one in town. So the tape just sat in the closet for a long time. And then I found the machine years later in Montreal, so I went to Montreal and got the tape transferred to digital. And then I brought it back and it sat on the shelf for even longer. A little while ago, I started to play with it and remix it.”

The M=E/C2 sessions date from what Xaliman calls their “rock band” years, circa 1981-1982, where the Melodic Energy Commission was most active playing live. Shows back then included a highly successful opening slot for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band at the Commodore, which happened thanks to the support of Perryscope’s Gerry Barad, who was a fan.

“Perryscope wanted to make sure we were confident, so they gave us a nightclub — because they owned Richards on Richards at the time, though it wasn’t called that. It was in phase between being the Laundromat and something else. But they gave us that venue for a couple of days, rehearsing on the big stage, with no audience. It was good training! Then the next day we’re on the Commodore stage — a really big stage, and it was a sold out show.”

Xaliman recalls that during soundcheck, “we made up these funny-shaped pieces of paper as a promo for the band, cryptic things like Gong’s Daevid Allen would probably do, and put them on all of the tables, so people could think more about the band than just seeing them onstage. And the Beefheart gang, without Beefheart, were out there, and they were looking at this saying, ‘it’s just like Gong!’ They kinda liked that.”

The experience “was fantastic,” Xaliman beams. “We got an encore and everything, and played one more song. I was quite amazed, because that’s quite rare, especially when Captain Beefheart is waiting backstage.”

Footage from around that time exists, shot by Lenore Herb, AKA Lenore Couttes, at Metro Media, a now defunct artist-run centre on Commercial Drive, where Xaliman and company had a music studio in the basement, and weird art brethren like Tunnel Canary, Si Monkey, and the Haters all played shows. Xaliman cues up a strikingly cool video for a song called “Not Like Dominoes,” shot there. The only recording of the song in existence, it shows that, in an improvisatory, live rock groove, the Melodic Energy Commission sounded rather like Krautrock giants Can, with added Theremin. The performance is far more confident and passionate than the somewhat cerebral oddness of their previous releases; it’s no wonder Beefheart’s audience was impressed.

Theremin man George McDonald joins BC Musician and Xaliman in the basement during the screening. It’s hard to miss the weird material- some sort of strangely plastic, unfinished patchwork cloak — hanging crookedly from his arms, onscreen, as he plays. What the heck is that stuff, anyways?

“Rattlesnake skins,” Xaliman answers.

McDonald corrects him. “Python skins. It’s the shedding of Jozef’s python” — this being “the Incredible” Jozef Demcak, a local performer with whom the band crossed paths. “There used to be a club at Broadway and Main and he’d have all these big baskets with snakes in them, and at one point he would chain his assistant to this crucifix, and he starts getting snakes out of his basket and wrapping them around her.”

There were also scorpions, tarantulas, and other exotic creatures in the show, as McDonald remembers. “The big snakes were out on the dance floor, and they’re about twenty feet long. They start heading towards the tables, and he’s pulling them back by the tails towards the dance floor, and people are jumping up and knocking tables over…”

McDonald and Xaliman are both laughing at the memory. “Sometimes the show was called ‘The Devil and the Virgin,’” McDonald recalls.

“I actually played with him as he did his magic show at the Penthouse,” Xaliman adds. “He had a one week gig. It was three shows a day or something, and it’s a twenty foot python that weighs like, 250 to 300 pounds, so we had to carry it upstairs. There’d be three people in different sections of it!”

The Captain Beefheart gig was probably the peak for the Melodic Energy Commission, in its initial incarnation. “I remember feeling like, ‘Okay, this is the beginning! We’re taking off,’” Xaliman says. “Instead we went into the studio, and recorded, and then the band broke up.” He shakes his head.

McDonald went on to play in a “grungy rock band” with Young Canadians bassist Jim Bescott, called the Crazy Cats, or sometimes the Krazy Kats. They were “the house band at the Buddha,” mostly doing rock covers (and maybe a bit too much dope, McDonald admits). Then he stepped out of the rock life to be a family man, while continuing to tinker with his Theremin designs. (The “Not Like Dominoes” Theremin is the third Theremin he put together; he is currently on “number five,” a six-armed, one-of-a-kind creation that only he knows how to play, and which, by design, resembles the handlebars of a motorcycle).

The Melodic Energy Commission may have peaked in 1981, but you can’t keep a good band down. Core members reunited to put out a new album, Time is a Slippery Concept, in 2005, then played a rare live show at the Khatsahlano Summer of Love fest in 2008. (Some of the promotional material described them incorrectly, but understandably, as an original act “from the 1960’s”). 2013 saw the release of Wave Packet, which did well in Japan, Xaliman reports. And record collectors remain excited about their back catalogue: Hawkwind completists and fans in England continue to hound him to reissue M=E/C2 on vinyl, which he is considering doing.

Best of all, members of the band — minus Raine-Reusch, though Xaliman is in touch and hopes to include him — spent much of the summer of 2016 jamming together in Xaliman’s home, recording everything, which Xaliman has been poring over, preparing their next album.

“It’s two discs,” McDonald says. “One is more ambient” — swirling and multicoloured and rooted in live performance — “and the other has bass and drums,” including original members the Franklin brothers.

What about their Hawkwind connection? Apparently Xaliman and company have been in touch with Bridget Wishart, vocalist from the Space Bandits phase of the band, who has sent them some files over the internet. They’ve even gotten in touch with Del Dettmar again, where he now lives in Kootenay Bay.

“The last time I talked to him, he was playing more violin and guitar. His Synths are in the closet. But I mean, we might go and record with him there!” Xaliman grins mischievously. “Like, walk into his living room and say, ‘Okay, ready?’”


by Allan McInnis


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