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The Psychedelic Aliens - Psycho African Beat

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Artist: The Psychedelic Aliens

Album: Psycho African Beat

Label: Academy

Review date: Nov. 16, 2010

Maybe the recent reissues by Zambians Witch and Amanaz have set you to wondering what the rest of African rock sounds like; maybe you want something more, something better? Now someone’s found a long-lost band that, judging from the record sleeve, would look just right tucked between Hasil Adkins and Esquerita in a Norton catalog, and was called The Psychedelic Aliens to boot. It’s almost too good to be true.

The broad outline of the Aliens’ (more on that name in a minute) story could apply to half the bands on those Pebbles compilations; some young guys get hold of some instruments and a family member’s VW bus, cut their teeth at some clubs and hotels around town, hit the road, play with some big famous stars, put out a few singles that sound great but don’t break them into the big time, lose a couple members to college, fall into disarray and break up. The hot organ sound and distorted guitars could certainly earn a few of those songs a place on some garage-rock comp. But the band members came from Accra, Ghana, and they had to trade up with foreigners passing through town to get their hands on worthwhile gear in a country where musical instruments were classified as luxury items subject to a 300 percent surcharge. The stars they hung with included Fela Kuti, Santana and Wilson Pickett.

Three of them had non-Ghanaian parents, and it was that mix of Indian, Lebanese and French heritage that inspired them to name themselves The Aliens. They started out in 1968 playing a mix of highlife and Western pop; one singer handled the English vocals, another sang in French. Over time they acquired a Vox Continental organ, some fuzz pedals, and a copy of Are You Experienced?, all of which pushed their sound closer to rock. A paired-down portion of the band recorded its first EP in 1970 during an extended run in Nigeria, so rather than use its regular name, the band released it under a nickname given them by fans. Those first four songs don’t sound particularly psychedelic, but they’re pretty hot; “Hijacking” could be the work of a rougher Booker T. & the M.G.s, while “Extraordinary Woman” sounds a little like Hendrix, if he’d gone with R&B instead of those newfangled freak-outs and covered “Walkin’ The Dog.”

The other two singles were recorded the next year, after the Aliens had started playing with a light show that instigated a name change to the Magic Aliens. Jamming with Fela and sharing a stage with Santana had encouraged them to pick up the tempos and harden their attack, but hearing a band from the U.S. do its best to sound African had changed them in another way. They no longer felt like imitating anybody. Only one song from the first recording was sung in an indigenous language; none of the songs recorded the second time around are in English. The hand drums are louder in the mix, the grooves more akin to sped-up Afrobeat than rock ‘n’ roll. But the woozy guitar lick that kicks off “Okponmoni Ni Titsi Emo Le” is still audibly beholden to Hendrix, and if anything, the later tunes rock even harder.

It’s a sound that would have been well worth exploring, and it’s a shame that the Aliens didn’t last long after the departure of guitarist Carl Telfer and organist Malek Crayem later in 1971. But what could be more rock ‘n’ roll than a band that burned out rather than faded away?

By Bill Meyer

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