Thursday, June 20, 2024

God Awful – The Appalling Musical Output of L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard was many things – none of them good, though his musical output is understandably overlooked. Over the course of a handful of albums, Hubbard attempted to combine the ideology and in many cases the direct text from his Scientology teachings, entrancing his devout followers but, thankfully, ignored by pretty much everyone else. Hubbard’s direct involvement in them is slight, only really pushing his musicians and collaborators in the right direction and leaving them to it, the results only necessary to push along his batshit ideals for living.

Formed in 1967, the Sea Org were the elite warriors of Hubbard’s army, a core group of Church of Scientology staff members who had signed a billion-year pledge of service to Scientology. In this early period, as the name suggests, they were stationed aboard three ships: the Avon River, the Enchanter, and HMS Royal Scotsman, with Hubbard as the self-titled commodore. Floating around in squalid conditions, these dedicated members could continue their training and teaching away from the spying eyes of the government. Whilst ashore in Madeira in 1973, a band was assembled to play the town square at the behest of the mayor, with just about enough musicians to fulfil the requirements. In fact, at least two of the band already had footnotes in music history, with saxophonist Bill Potter having played with Big Mama Thornton and Luten Taylor on bass trombone, part of the ensemble that played on the theme to ‘Mission: Impossible’ on TV.

Lead saxophonist, Neil Sarfati, recalled that when the band came to record their only album, Hubbard was regularly in the studio with them, his lack of musical knowledge immediately obvious but his control so complete over his flock that they spent hours and hours following his wayward lead. Indeed, they were fined a dollar for every wrong note they played…not that you’d know. The final results were his officially sanctioned, definitive versions of the tracks and no deviation whatsoever was allowed in future live performances.

The band was called The Apollo Stars and the album ‘Power of Source’. Despite the thousands spent by Hubbard on recording equipment, it’s a terrible-sounding record even before you consider the music itself. It may be the most appallingly mixed album in history, with muffled instruments, strange speaker phasing (and, ironically, lack of at the same time) drums that sound like a tap dancer with clogs on and the wrong instruments lifted higher into the mix at the wrong time. Of course, it was Hubbard behind the mixing desk.

Hubbard is seated wearing his cans, which presumably weren’t plugged into anything

The rear of the album sleeve declared that “L. Ron Hubbard developed an incredible new sound in music…radio, TV and stage people have already universally decreed that The Apollo Stars ARE a new and exciting sound in music. It is often repeated that the Stars are playing the music of the future”. It’s difficult to accept that quasi-avant-garde jazz music was invented by Hubbard, nor that the future would or will have any interest in it. Gershwin‘s ‘Summertime’ is “reduced” to an 11-minute attempt at recording a saxophonist, a trumpeter, a flautist and a drummer being repeatedly pushed down a very large flight of stairs; ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’ sounds like a swarm of wasps attacking a brass band, whilst Hubbard original ‘We’re Moving In’ sounds precisely as confused as the whole concept. The band split once the Church moved back onto land. The only earnings of note were the fines owed by the band to Hubbard.

It was nearly a decade until Hubbard launched another shot across the bows of popular music but when it came, few could have prepared themselves for the onslaught. ‘Space Jazz: The Soundtrack of the Book Battlefield Earth’ was an attempt to even more directly infect the masses with not just his excruciating music but his baffling outer space doctrine. Released in 1982, it was a complete change in sound from The Apollo Stars and upped the ante by featuring several well-known musicians. Husband and wife jazzers Chick Corea and Gayle Moran; keyboardist extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins and jazz fusion bassist, Stanley Clarke all appeared, though there are no real revelations here as such – they were all well-known members of the Church of Scientology.

‘Battlefield Earth’ was the ticket to the stars in Hubbard’s mind – part of a projected ten-volume set to be accompanied by an album and a film, all released quickly in sequence to capture the hearts and minds of the world’s population. The rear of the album sleeve proudly proclaims the record to be “the first soundtrack to a book”, an odd claim and one which holds little water. The timing of the album’s release was intended to hop aboard the sci-fi bandwagon, which was at full pelt in the wake of blockbusters like ‘E.T.’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. It made full use of the cutting-edge equipment at their disposal, not least the Fairlight CMI, a digital synthesizer and sampler which was hailed as a new dawn for sound.

Few sounds have dated as badly as those created by the Fairlight. Artificial-sounding, corny and devoid of anything approaching emotion, inevitably Hubbard loved it and used it everywhere he could, even suggesting he had managed to unlock secret powers within the machine that even its creators weren’t aware of. Marrying up the narration of key moments from the book with daft voice-overs about Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and an embarrassment of increasingly absurd samples, it’s impressive only in its scope.

“What planet is that?

“I don’t know, God”

It’s anything but subtle. Despite the space-age technology, it’s completely out of step with the music of the time, or indeed any time. Every note seems to utilise a different pre-set, as if a monkey had been let loose in a musical instrument shop and was bashing everything in sight. It doesn’t help that the story itself is utterly impenetrable, even in the unlikely event you’ve read the book. As such, it’s tricky to really get into ‘The Mining Song’ or feel compelled to hide behind the sofa at ‘Alien Visitors Attack’. Among the rat-a-tat gunfire and growling sound effects, there’s surprisingly little in terms of melody and less still of anything at risk of being catchy. The highlight is ‘Windsplitter’, a horse-heavy neigh-along of a dancing beast that must be heard to be believed.

As it turned out, the film element didn’t appear until long after Hubbard’s death in 1986, leaving the album lingering in a strange limbo where only the few people with the patience to read the novel (or who were already Scientologists) were able to get anything meaningful out of it. Luckily, Edgar Winter was waiting in the wings to keep Hubbard’s music alive.

Hubbard left detailed instructions for Winter and other musicians to continue to make his music when he had ascended to wherever he expected to ascend. Winter was in many senses the perfect foil – a multi-instrumentalist who was well-versed in leaping aboard other musician’s material and blowing a saxophone over it. To his credit, 1986’s ‘Mission Earth’ does resemble music, with a standard structure (although, obviously a concept album) and mad cover art. It is true to Hubbard’s legacy, being absolutely appalling. Winter’s vocals are a challenge to enjoy at the best of times, a reedy sort of insect noise tasked with bringing to life Hubbard’s baffling ramblings.

“Just call me Bang-Bang

Bang-Bang, that’s me”

‘Teach Me’ has a lyric with more than a touch of grooming about it, somehow made even more repellent by its soft-rock stylings. To make a comparison, the theme tune to ‘My Two Dads’ is both lyrically and musically stronger but is still ballpark. It rocks harder too. The title track, with its synth brass blarps and Edgar singing utter drivel at least kicks off the album, so you can’t say you were lured in. A genuinely horrible album.

Unfathomably that’s not the end of it. ‘The Road to Freedom’ credited L. Ron Hubbard and Friends was released in 1995, this time attracting even bigger guns than previous efforts. Stand up John Travolta; Karen Black; Frank Stallone; Chick Corea; Leif Garrett and Nicky Hopkins. Once again Hubbard’s lyrics are dug out of storage along with his dreadful synth pop jazz. ‘Battlefield Earth’ the film was still five years away and so the emphasis here is more on the Church’s general teachings than a baffling 1000-page sci-fi novel.

John, Leif and Frank unite on the title track, a song which has elements of Michael Jackson‘s ‘Earth Song’ and Old McDonald’s farm brought together in a synth gospel earthquake.

“You are not mind or chemicals, you don’t even have a form

You’re in a trap of senseless lies, it’s time to be reborn”

As with all Hubbard’s musical excursions, there is a complete lack of humour and self-awareness, leaving the poor listener to contend with fake-smiled couplets about how your life can only be salvaged by investing in the exciting world of Scientology. A child is threatened with a lullaby on track two, which begins:

“There was a worried being who did secret acts
He felt he had to hide, hide, hide, hide, hide
(Ooh what a sad song!)”

David Pomerance, whose bio boasts of collaborations with Kenny Loggins and Cliff Richard, is given the album’s premiere line, delivered with exceptional joie de vivre  as synths and drum machines close in menacingly:

“Avoid temptations of the flesh for vices are a trap
And put you in a coil of sin
Whose tentacles will enwrap”

If you think it would be tricky to wrap a tune around that, you’d be right. In 1995 the music here was bafflingly out of date…not that there has been a date when this would be classed as contemporary. Frothy, saccharine and almost like paper cuts in terms of its likeability, it’s an abject lesson in how easy it is to be clouded by false messaging and preaching to the extent that what is blindingly horrid is overlooked. We are at least treated to the vocal of L. Ron himself on the final song, ‘L’Envoi – Thank You for Listening’ presumably, but not definitely, recorded before he was interred. His vocals certainly do have a certain timbre. Enjoy.

Daz Lawrence

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