It can take decades to have an imprinted bit of data become useful. That happened to me recently when I was archiving some materials that came from the estate of producer Phil York. Among them, was this reel, nearly totally absent from any identification EXCEPT on the back of the box. “1/4 track 2nd Part Delbert & play.”
Well, I know that Phil worked a lot with Delbert McClinton in the early days – perhaps it’s something from that. But alas, when I finally got it to spin up, it was obviously not Delbert. It was a 50 minute live tape, recorded on a ¼ track deck (one channel only) and at a really low level. Even so, I was able to do my typical restoration work and got a nice dub. Now – who was the band?
A few minutes into the show, comes a song. It’s the very song that I had heard a 40 second clip of back in 1981. It appeared in the middle of a 1973 KZEW commercial that Jon Dillon had cut for Gertie’s.
“I’m in love, that’s no lie
You don’t need to ask me why.
‘Cause I’m high, high, high, hiii-iigh.”
It was exactly what I heard on the mystery tape. The band was Space Opera and the song is called “Country Max.” Mystery #1 solved. But why did a progressive rock band like Space Opera have a tape in Phil York’s pile-o-stuff? You gotta dig into the roots, and I don’t mind doing that.
At the real roots of the 1972 debut Lp by Space Opera, you find Scott Fraser and Edd Lively in a teenage garage band called The Mods. In 1966 they cut their only recording, a 45 with their original tune “Days Mind The Time” paired with a little known Lennon-McCartney song “It’s For You.” The single provides the big clue – Phil York was the sound engineer on the session, probably recorded at Sound City in Ft. Worth.
By 1968 the Mods were updating their sound and had been joined by two more key musicians, David Bullock and Philip White. Knocking around exploring new ideas spurred by the rapidly changing musical landscape of the times, they recorded some tunes with 20-year old T. Bone Burnett producing. Again, recording in Sound City, where Phil York was one of the owners. The result of the sessions was an Lp called ‘The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc.’ The band was hidden under the name Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit, and Greenhill, and the LP, which was lost in a sea of other releases by UNI Records, disappeared without a trace, but it showed they were no ordinary quartet. These guys had some fresh ideas.
Pressing on, Fraser (guitar, vocals), Bullock (guitar, vocals), and White (bass, vocals) dreamed up new ideas and in the spring of 1969 met jazz drummer Brett Wilson, who actually went to high school with all three. The new group came up with a better name, and launched themselves into the local scene as Space Opera. They played all the usual spots and sounded like nobody else. They rose through the ranks quickly enough they were invited to play opening spots for big concerts which put them on the same stage as the Byrds, and Jefferson Airplane – two bands that had obviously exerted a great influence on Space Opera.
For several years they crafted their unusual sound. A little country rock, a bit of jazz, toss in some Zappa and whatever else, and they were gaining fans. But still, no vinyl to show for it all. Since DFW was a place where local music was turning to national fare, Space Opera was ‘discovered’ by Columbia Records, and trekked up to Toronto to cut their debut album.
The group wove together a complex tapestry with threads of psych, prog, Bryds-ish country, jazz and pop with gorgeous harmonies, and unexpectedly joyous guitar solos. Judging from the number of times their songs have been streamed on YouTube nearly 40 years later, the top of the stack is “Holy River” 24K, with “Country Max” 16K and “Over And Over” close behind at 15K. “Outlines” is at 3.9K, and “My Telephone Artist” at 3.8K. These are only some of the thousands of streams of songs that haven’t been available in any form since the mid ‘70s and rave reviews in the comments.
Emerging from long sessions, and months away from their home base, it was then that the complex nature of Space Opera took its toll. The band spent a long time recording and mixing. In order to replicate the complex LP in a live setting, they needed some new, custom gear, and that takes time and money. All this while away from DFW and playing live the band started to fade. The LP ‘Space Opera’ hits shop in the spring of 1973 and the band played a few shows, but it just wasn’t the same. They soon split up. Despite that, the band’s vinyl legacy endures and in the decades since, has become quite the collectible, and when it turns up could fetch $40-$100.
So what was the mystery tape? It is nearly 50 minutes of a live show. The venue is unknown, the date as well. But you do get to hear eight songs, five of which were not part of their album. Perhaps this is something that needs to be shared as part of their continued legacy, and that might have to see a return to vinyl as well. After all, Space Opera was not like everyone else, so why should this lost tape’s return be anything typical. More to come.