A deserving tribute to one of rock’s most iconic groups provides an opportunity to delve into the work of two under-considered sticksmen.
Few bands have influenced rock ’n’ roll as deeply as the 13th Floor Elevators. They are the kind of band you listen to over and over again, until the musical arrangements reveal the story of their consciousness-expanding vision of enlightenment. At first glance, you could mistake them as just another group of young rebels that chose to go against the constrictions of society and start a rock band. Their ongoing prominence proves they were so much more.
Editor and renowned archivist Johan Kugelberg says that the Elevators “have been as influential as the Velvet Underground, in how they informed punk and altered the trajectory of underground music.” Earlier this year, Anthology Editions released a dense archive of the band’s history written and organized by Paul Drummond, 13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History. The book includes interviews, photos from rare live performances, flier artwork, and an introduction by longtime Patti Smith collaborator and rock historian Lenny Kaye, who first included their debut hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” in his iconic garage-rock compilation, Nuggets, in 1972. Highlights include a timeline of the band members and the people who surrounded them, and an exploration of the controversy that ended the group four years after it first started shaking up the scene. “Even though the Elevators burnt out at the end of the ’60s,” says editor Mark Iosifescu, “their cult grew over the ensuing decade, and they were among the few reference points that the capital-P Punks looked to for inspiration in the ’70s.”
John Ike Walton and his replacement, Danny Thomas, were the drummers tasked with keeping the exploratory band together. Classic opening numbers “You’re Gonna Miss Me” [Walton, The Psychedelic Sounds Of…] and “Slip Inside This House” [Thomas, Easter Everywhere] typify the band’s bizarre yet memorable approach to song arrangement, and provide examples of each of the drummers’ ability to complement the dynamic structures. “‘Slip Inside This House’ gave me the opportunity to prove myself,” says Thomas in the pages of A Visual History. “I kept it rock-steady through the whole song, but kept it edgy.”
Walton and Thomas each brought something unique to Elevators albums. “The biggest change between the [first two] albums was that Psychedelic Sounds was made up of honed, road-tested live band material,” says Mark Iosifescu, “and Easter Everywhere was much more something that was built in the studio. The personnel changes added another layer of complication, and it feels to me like the styles of each album are a reflection of the strengths of the band members who played on them.”
Thomas attempted to define the difference between him and Walton in an interview quoted in A Visual History: “[The Elevators] were just used to the drummer taking the lead and keeping up, and whenever it started to lag, he [Walton] would push them further and they would step up again. That was where they got their energy from. I got my energy from premeditated arrangements with planned hook lines and changes—what I call ‘stops, pops, and turnarounds’—so they had to adapt to my style, as well as me having to adapt to their style.”
The Elevators’ style was largely down to the uniqueness of singer/songwriter/guitarist Roky Erickson, who infamously battled mental illness through the ’90s, until his brother took legal custody of him and helped him lead a relatively normal life until his death in May 2019. Despite his hardships, Erickson created some of the most distinctive music in rock history. “Roky was self-taught to the point where he played what sounded good,” said Thomas, “even if he didn’t know what the name of the chord was. But he would remember it. And it was absolutely avant-garde, way ahead of its time, and unique in itself.” A Visual History captures this uniqueness, and shines a light on the drummers and other musicians who helped bring it to life.
Lia Simone Braswell