Graded on a Curve: Lothar and the Hand People, Presenting…

Even as far back as 1968, there were more bands on the scene than a person could effectively shake a wet noodle at. Naturally, many of them are best left unexamined in history’s voluminous dustbin, but there remains more than a few worthies that endure in flying under the radar. One such example is New York City’s curiously tweaked psychedelic-pop act Lothar and the Hand People. They hung around the fringes of the whole hippie thing and produced a pair of LPs that over the years have managed to acquire a small cult following, and the better of the two is their first one, Presenting…Lothar and the Hand People.

The story goes that Lothar and the Hand People formed in Denver in 1965. That city hasn’t exactly been portrayed as a rock Mecca of the period, and it apparently took all of a year for them to hightail it to the greener musical pastures of NYC. They consisted of Rusty Ford on bass, Kim King on guitar, Moog and Ampex tape decks, Paul Conley on keyboards, liner controller and Moog, Tom Flye on drums and percussion, and John Emelin on lead vocals.

Oh, and there was Lothar, their trusty Theremin, the responsibilities of which fell mainly onto Emelin’s shoulders, or more appropriately, the motions of his two hands. For those unfamiliar, the Theremin was an early electronic instrument patented in 1928 and named after its inventor. For decades the most celebrated use of Léon Theremin’s creation came through the very enjoyable recordings of Clara Rockmore, noted as an early virtuoso on the device. Additionally, it’s a musical instrument that’s distinguished for how it never gets touched by the player’s fingers as it emits its sonic atmospheres.

The Theremin soon became a touchstone in the scores of numerous films, the bulk of them sci-fi flicks from the mid-section of last century including the classics The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another World). Contrary to popular lore however, it’s not a part of Louis and Bebe Barron’s soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (they used oscillator circuits and a ring modulator for that one.)

The Theremin’s unique sound also turned up in a pop context over the years, most famously on The Beach Boys’ chestnut “Good Vibrations.” And it’s safe to say that in 1968 a rock band with a Moog and a Theremin stood a pretty good chance of getting signed even if they were otherwise burdened by mediocrity. For during the tail end of the ‘60s, music readily embracing aspects of the new experienced an unusually high level of commercial success. Or, to be bluntly cynical about it, “weird” was “in,” baby.

Sign ‘em up is exactly what Capitol Records did with Lothar and the Hand People, though fortunately the band was much more than mediocre, being especially lively, engaging on and inventive on their debut LP. And if their instrumental arsenal seems like a natural fit for hippie-era excess, they were actually one of the trimmer pop-oriented founts of the age’s musical intrigue, with much of their material being highly accessible.

This is especially evident on their three early 45s, the balance of which is likeable if far from earth shattering. The highpoints in these six cuts include a solid rip into a Don Covay soul-belter (“Have Mercy (Mercy Mercy Mercy)”), a dose of folk-pop with mildly odd strokes (“Let the Boy Pretend”), better than average studio-crafted psych goofing (“Comic Strip”), and a very strong ditty of near Turtles-esque quality that should’ve been at least a mild hit (“L-O-V-E (Ask For it By Name).”)

And if they’d ended at this point, Lothar and the Hand People would likely be of interest to only the most intensely dedicated of ‘60s 45 collectors, but happily they persevered. I first read about them in a badly beaten copy of Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, the laudable and opinionated tome that long before the rise of the internet served as an invaluable resource into the existence of obscurities like Autosalvage, The United States of America, the Soft White Underbelly, and The Silver Apples, amongst many others.

But the distance between reading about Lothar and the Hand People and actually getting to hear them was a long time in coming, and in fact this divide eclipsed more than a decade of futile flipping through the L section of many a used record store. And when I finally asked the owner of my local shop if there were any CD reissues to be had (in fact, there was one) the unexpected resulted; said owner not only turned out to be a fan of the group, but a guy who’d witnessed them live and had even been allowed to play ol’ Lothar after a gig (paraphrasing his words, “it’s much harder than you’d think.”)

He also brought in his copies of the band’s singles and Presenting for play in the store (neither a lender nor a borrower was he), and finally getting to absorb their music resulted in no disappointed expectations. And it was a far better introduction than the shoddy looking and poorly mastered comp CD released by See For Miles in ’86 titled This is It, Machines. That one also apparently came out on LP, but by 1991 was unsurprisingly OOP, at least in the States.

But if my expectations weren’t deflated, Presenting did significantly alter them. Instead of a group dedicated to wild flights of electronic exploration, the Hand People revealed themselves to be much closer to a more adventurous, less mature version of the Lovin’ Spoonful. When someone traded in box of vinyl holding an original copy of the debut shortly after, I scooped it up and spent the rest of the ‘90s getting to know it better. While it misses the status of masterpiece by a very slim margin, it does provide a highly enjoyable ride as it details the depth of the often unjustly dismissed late-‘60s East Coast scene.

The album opens with “Machines,” a cover of a Mort Shuman composition most notable for its ’66 recording by Manfred Mann (with none other than Jack Bruce figuring on bass.) The take by Lothar retains much from the UK outfit’s version but replaces Manfred Mann’s use of horns with the expected electronic additives, and in so doing the Hand People seem to be offering a sardonic commentary on Shuman’s rather alarmist warning over technology run amok.

Initially, the tune’s mimicry of assembly line robotics makes it seem like a poor choice for a single by Capitol, but that’s just what they did, perhaps hoping to repeat the Brit chart success EMI had with Manfred Mann as they also spotlighted the Hand People’s break from standard rock instrumentation. But as “Machines” unwinds it finds them adjusting very well to the song’s inherent pop strengths, and it actually becomes fairly danceable (and it’s interesting to note that Shuman eventually cut his own unexceptional electro-funk version, with an arrangement by Luther Vandross, in 1980.)

After “Machines” ends their pop side really comes into full flower with “This is It.” It’s an unfussy number that easily shakes off one of the nagging problems with their pre-LP singles, specifically that early on they seemed to be in constant danger of being consumed by the whole studio process. Instead, “This is It” flows very naturally, and if Emelin is basically a serviceable singer that’ll never give any aspiring pop vocalists nightmares of inadequacy, he makes up for his lack of pure skill with personality. In addition, the track’s country-shaded guitar solo really tilts toward the goodtime vibes of the Spoonful.

But “This May Be Goodbye” explores a different direction, taking a standard pop sensibility and warping it through strangely emphatic vocals singing lyrics of acid-trip poetics (“the stars are not afraid to look like fireflies”) as the band’s playing gets rather heated and all sorts of electronic zest spikes an already intoxicating punchbowl. And the song emphasizes that Lothar and the Hand People’s pop inclination was invested with varying levels of intellectualism.

And this display of smarts has gotten them linked to the satirical nature of The Mothers of Invention, but while the comparison isn’t necessarily inapt, I really think the better analogy is to The Beatles. “This May Be Goodbye,” while far from overtly resembling “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” is sorta impossible to imagine without its precedent. Furthermore, in musing over this similarity, I’m struck by how the casual confidence of this album’s “That’s Another Story” is lightly remindful of Ringo’s tunes from the time.

“Kids Are Little People” really amplifies these guys’ brainy side, though. And yeah, the cut’s very probable satirizing of counterculture platitudes (you really need to hear how Emelin intones the song’s title, coming off like a hypersensitive hippie schoolteacher, to fully appreciate the angle) is somewhat suggestive of Zappa’s contemporaneous feelings, but the attitude here is more playful than was Frank’s frequently acerbic musings.

It’s also the locale on the disc that brings the Theremin into sharpest focus. Elsewhere on the LP the apparatus mainly serves as an aural sprinkling that mostly surfaces in between selections, but here Emelin actually solos on the instrument and the results, if lastingly unusual in sonic texture, are also warmly organic. And this really highlights the Hand People’s stature as a unit admirably sensitive in their desires to embody innovation (the use of the Theremin aside, they’re also often cited as the first rock act to take electronic instruments on tour.)

Rather than forcing the issue by grafting the Theremin into situations where it would’ve been inappropriate, they instead showed common sense in a time where levelheadedness wasn’t at a premium. This hasn’t stopped some from hypothesizing that the Hand People’s lack of sales figures came down to an unfulfilled promise of newly broken ground.

In reality, it seems to be more a combined case of geography (the East Coast falling behind the West’s and England’s late-‘60s rock dominance) and the group’s popish traits flying in the face of prevailing American ideals that were rooted in blues, folk, and more aggressively psychedelic visions. Consumers just weren’t pining for a more eclectic expansion upon the template of John Sebastian and crew.

Even when they are boldly “out,” the Hand People essentially retain ties to melody. Such it is with “Ha (Ho),” another track that reinforces their Beatles side, though it also seems to be a light riff on the maddeningly riveting Napoleon XIV novelty hit. Flip side opener “Sex and Violence” is also Presenting’s most intensely wacked-out moment, exploring the record’s toughest rock groove as they chant the song’s title in unison and Emelin sings in a tone that somewhat foreshadows the arrival of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith.

Next is a cover of The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” that simultaneously plays it straight and adds a strain of peculiarity through its technological veneer, and it continues to be one of my favorites from the album. It’s also the track that legitimizes an early Rolling Stone writer’s claim that Lothar and the Hand People played “electronic country” music, and the way Emelin mimics the mannerisms of a love-bruised hayseed greatly enhances the band’s rep as pranksters. Let’s just say that “Bye Bye Love” is a long way from Gram Parsons.

“Milkweed Love” goes heavy on the Moog washes in what feels like a loose, woozy extension of the flowing aspects of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” though this number replaces the former’s rhythmic drive with a surplus of the spacey. And it’s here that Presenting loosens its grasp on pop a bit. “You Won’t Be Lonely” combines some garage rock spunk with strength in songwriting that’s not that far from Arthur Lee’s early work with Love, and then out of nowhere comes “Woody Woodpecker,” a quick run-though of the theme for the eternally bonkers cartoon creation of Walter Lantz and Ben “Bugs” Hardaway.

And this detour into the zany might undermine the heft of this record for some listeners, but since I’ve always dug the actions of that daffy bird, it’s more than alright by me. From there, “It Comes on Anyhow” reveals a tidy piece of musique concrète that if in no way mind-blowing is sturdy enough that it ended up getting swiped by The Chemical Brothers for use in their track “It Doesn’t Matter.” And the disc quietly closes with the fragile synth floating of “Paul, In Love,” a piece pointing to a more deeply expressed component of their ’69 follow-up Space Hymn.

Due to the tranced-out new-age space voyage ambiance of the second LP’s title cut getting repeated play on early-‘70s FM radio, it’s often credited as Lothar and the Hand People’s biggest success. And while I enjoy it and Space Hymn overall, I persist in rating it as lesser than their debut. While I’ve long owned the Space Hymn stuff that features on that aforementioned See For Miles CD, until around a decade back I’d not heard the entirety of the record, and I’ve still never stumbled upon an original copy.

In 2003 a label called Acadia put out a 2CD set of Lothar’s complete work, but I didn’t buy it since I already had the singles on an expanded CD reissue of the first rec that came out in ’99 via the Razor & Tie imprint. And it’s highly doubtful that either of their albums will be getting a vinyl repress anytime soon, so those curious should keep an eye peeled on the used bins. My copy had a hole punched in the corner and I took it home for something like half a sawbuck, though the low-cost might’ve had something to do with friendship trumping capitalism. At least I like to think so.

Perhaps due to Lothar and the Hand People occasionally getting unfairly smeared as dated (Zounds!), their cult rep has always been rather small, and that’s way it will likely always be. And that’s really no great crime since they are probably best assessed as a minor band, if one possessing an uncommon rate of success in their manifestation of ambitiousness. But if minor, they did burst out of the gate with a sometimes excellent and never less than good first LP. It’s one that perseveres in offering a very distinctive reward.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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