Essential New Music: Pearls Before Swine’s “One Nation Underground”

When it was released on the ESP-Disk label in 1967 (on the same day as Sgt. Pepper no less), One Nation Underground struck an immediate chord with lovers of uncategorizable music. The album cover was a detail from the Hieronymus Bosch painting Garden Of Earthly Delights. The back cover featured a warthog-like logo but no band photograph. The songwriters were unknown and, in pre-Google days, it was hard to find any information about them. (An early review suggested it was a secret session of experimental folk created by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.)

Underground’s expansive psychedelia became ESP’s most successful release, selling around 200,000 copies. It was the debut of singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Rapp, who created it with three high-school chums, and it still produces a lysergic buzz. Opening ballad “Another Time” is a dreamy assessment of heartache and loss, wherein restrained fingerpicking, minimal bass and Rapp’s whispered vocal weave an inescapable spell. “Playmate” is a children’s song from the ’30s, but in Rapp’s slowed-down rock arrangement, the words (“Slide down my cellar door”) take on a sinister tone. The cheeky “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is a banjo-driven folk rocker whose chorus spells out “fuck” in Morse code.

The centerpiece is “I Shall Not Care,” a three-part, five-minute, psychedelic masterpiece that follows the protagonist into the grave, down into a shrieking swirl of non-existence and up again for a muted resurrection. In its own way, it’s as jarring as “A Day In The Life” and just as groundbreaking.

—j. poet