I first heard of Reign Ghost in the early '80s, back when record collecting was still a gentleman's hobby. Chuck Warner was a great fan of the Canadian band Christmas, and one time when I was visiting, he showed me the first Reign Ghost LP, commenting only that it was Bob Bryden's band before Christmas. It looked pretty juicy, but I didn't get a chance to hear it until a beater copy came through Rhino a year or so later (in the same buy as a ratty copy of Master's Apprentices' A Toast to Panama Red). At the time I was really starting to get into bands that appeared to base their sound on Jefferson Airplane's template, and Reign Ghost fit into that niche pretty well -- the basic idea being that it required a female vocalist who was not trying to sound gritty (à la Joplin) and a lead guitarist who was willing to lay out some serious psych pantaloonery. Lynda Squires and Bob Bryden were the names of the Canadian stand-ins for Grace and Jorma.
There is a vast array of mock-Airplanes out there if you bother to look. I was a stupid kid when I got into the game, and so included everything from January Thyme to Spirits & Worm, many of whom have proved to be somewhat suspect upon closer inspection. But really, who cares? Hobbies are supposed to be dumb. And the Airplane were a singularly fucked-up band, as well as being incredibly popular and influential. They were easily the most successful band to emerge from the SF Ballroom scene, and the fact that Grace had brought their two signature songs with her from The Great Society meant that many people viewed her as the band's leader (to the eternal disgust of the band's founding vocalist, Marty Balin). But I digress. All I meant to say was that the Airplane provided a template for a lot of bands, and to a certain degree, Reign Ghost were one, although the closer you look, the less that is true.
“…the Airplane provided a template for a lot of bands, and to a certain degree, Reign Ghost were one, although the closer you look, the less that is true.”
Knowing their music mostly from crappy copies of the LPs, later supplanted by more listenable bootleg versions, I wasn't very aware of Reign Ghost's actual history 'til I got these Out-Sider sets. They're the first legit reissues done, and all the transfer and mastering work was supervised by Bryden, who'd bought the master tapes off Allied a while back. Bob also provides excellent liner-note booklets for both LPs, so I now know a whole lot more about the band than I did yesterday.
Lynda and Bob were high school hump-buds and doing various musical things when they hooked up with the extant bones of a band called Reign Ghost. All this took place in Oshawa, Ontario, a factory town an hour northeast of Toronto. The big Toronto bands at the time were Kensington Market (whose John Mills-Cockell was also part of the amazing Intersystems), the Paupers (the sole Canadian band that played the Monterey Pop Festival), and the Ugly Ducklings (whose album is one of the great garage rock records of the '60s -- incidentally, I own Bryden's old copy), but Reign Ghost didn't use any of them as models. In the liners to the first album, Bryden writes about the all-covers band he and Lynda had before Reign Ghost and mentions doing tunes by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and The Doors, as well as the Airplane. He is also really excited that the album was being issued by the Canadian label associated with Elektra, since it makes them label-mates with bands like Ars Nova, Eclection, Earth Opera, Rhinoceros, and other names that reek of record collectordom at its most fevered. Bryden doesn't harp on this element of his directional impulses, but we who are record scum recognize a fellow traveler when we see one.
“Both are a mixture of greatness and sap (as is true of almost every '60s album that's not by the Monks, the Sonics or the 13th Floor Elevators)...”
Anyway, the two Reign Ghost albums are rather different. And Bryden explains in the notes that the second one was actually recorded by a band that was billed as “The New Reign Ghost,” since the kernel of the original band was completely replaced soon after the first album was released. And I go back and forth on which of the albums I actually prefer. Both are a mixture of greatness and sap (as is true of almost every '60s album that's not by the Monks, the Sonics or the 13th Floor Elevators), but the highpoints on each are very high indeed. And if one has smoked their recommended daily dose of medical cheeb, they'll both sound fucking great.
The first one, just called Reign Ghost, was recorded near the end of America's hell year -- 1968 -- and came out in the spring of 1969. But Anglo Canada seems to have been immune to the bad vibes. While Nixon was getting elected and the Quiet Revolution was heating up in Quebec, the Yorkville scene in Toronto was burping Neil Young and Joni Mitchell into the world's air.
In a nearby suburban studio, Reign Ghost were cutting their debut LP. But, even though they were still children (Bob and Lynda were both 17 when the sessions happened), they managed to tap into the universal psych font. And while there is some occasional clunkiness, it really sorta adds to the record's charm. The only true hard Airplane cop happens on ”Southern Hemisphere Blues Legacy,” where the “Grazing in the Grass” intro is trumped by a Balin-esque blabbermouth trope, along with a lovely guitar solo and wordless female vocals. The best two pieces on the album are the extended side closers -- “Eyes Knows, So Does Ears and Carolina” and “Reaching.” The former has great male/female twinned vocals and odd time changes with segues that actually approach prog in places. Some of the instrumental breaks are almost like the '68 Dead at their most laid-back. Which is cool. Even cooler is “Reaching,” which stretches out in multiple discreet parts almost like “Wind” by Circus Maximus or Serpent Power's “Endless Tunnel.” A fine late-night spin with crushing leads and little spoken bits. What's especially hep about these longer ones is that they sound super teenaged. You can hear the band bumping right up against the edge of what they imagine to be possible.
“…but we who are record scum recognize a fellow traveler when we see one.”
Not long after the album was released, the band fell apart, so Bob and Lynda recruited three new players. No keyboards this time. And the second album, Reign Ghost Featuring Lynda Squires was recorded soon after. For this one they re-did “Long Day Journey,” giving it less of the jazzy feel it had on their debut, goosing it with a few intense “rock” licks. Interestingly, the Airplane moves on this one are mostly a result of the Balin-oid power ballads. Marty had hoped to become the Frank Sinatra of the hippie set and it's nice to know that these Canadians took him at his word. Probably the best example of this is “Breadbox,” which sounds like a raunchy out-take from Crown of Creation. The only real disappointment here is “Mother's Got Troubles,” which is a token Porgy & Bess gesture, but not a great one. And there's only one extended track this time -- “Enola Gay” -- which Bryden admits is partly based on Iron Butterfly's sound, but I like Iron Butterfly, and so should you.
Sadly, right after the album was released, Lynda was cast in the Toronto production of Hair. This means there should be nude pics of her floating around somewhere, but it also meant the Reign Ghost were no more. Bryden and the drummer, Rich Richter, formed Christmas almost immediately and actually recorded their first album before the end of '69. Kids worked fast in the days before the internet. And that's a fact.