THE CHOCOLATE WATCHBAND Melts In Your Brain…Not On Your Wrist! (Big Beat)

The Chocolate Watchband were San Jose garage psychedelicists, whose attempts at capturing the excitement they generated live on disc were continually frustrated by a revolving door membership and producer/svengali Ed Cobb’s disconcerting habit of replacing the group’s own vocals between studio and store, or even filling their albums with music recorded by other bands. The painful irony is that what is arguably their best known recording – “Let’s Talk About Girls”’ – clunks straight into that former category, the version included on the seminal compilation “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968” being sabotaged by the substitution of session vocalist Don Bennett’s work for that of the Watchband’s own frontman David Aguilar. This compilation, which brings together every last scrap of music issued under the Chocolate Watchband name, claims to clearly delineate between the work of the real and fake bands, but in a rare fumble Ace’s packaging is so contrary and confusing that anyone interested in separating the two is likely to retire with a migraine. For example, tracks are appended with the catalogue number of the release on which they initially appeared, so to recreate any of the three albums issued by the group in their original running order you need to enlist the assistance of an external reference such as All Music Guide. Furthermore, versions of songs featuring original and freshly recorded Aguilar vocals as well as the released Don Bennett versions are scattered randomly throughout the running order, along with material recorded by a genuine Chocolate Watchband but released under the name The Hogs. To be fair, the non-Watchband material has been shunted to the far end of disc two, but even then you have to delve deep into the exhaustive but microscopic booklet notes to learn that the tracks “Dark Side Of The Mushroom” and “Expo 2000” are not in fact by the Watchband but were the work of producer Richie Podolor and his associate Bill Cooper. Additionally, the cover carries the dates 1965-1957, contradicting the booklet’s assertion that the band were still recording as late as 1968.

Enough whinging about the packaging; what of the music? Their early released sides present an irrepressibly snotty facsimile of whatever the British Invasion had washed up by 1965, Dave Aguilar’s freshly recorded and reinstated vocal on “Let’s Talk About Girls” retaining its slothful Jaggerisms despite lagging the original backing track by four decades. Dylan’s “Baby Blue” is heavily indebted to Them’s rendition, albeit with some near-religious keyboards emphasising their interpretive powers. “Misty Lane” and “She Weaves A Tender Trap” are examples of the then-emergent psychedelic folk pop, the latter in particular coming across as a low-budget “Ruby Tuesday”. “No Way Out” even meddles with backwards tapes, but all this experimentation is abruptly halted by their rave-up version of “In The Midnight Hour”. It might be rough, but it cuts straight to the sweaty essence of the song, Aguilar’s vocals slithering out as if he’s got a mouthful of gobstoppers, the track also hosting some strange Mothers Of Invention-style vocal interjections. “Come On” is a carbon copy of the Stones’ debut 45; “Gone And Passes By” lightly psychedelicises the young Mick ‘n’ Keef’s version of “Mona”. Several layers of irony are enfolded within their cover of The Kink’s “I’m Not Like Anybody Else”, a borrowed paean to individuality played by a band who spend most of their career being ignominiously locked out of their own records. They might not have been the first band to record a song called “Medication” (fellow Ed Cobb alumni The Standells cut the same track on their 1966 album “Dirty Water”) but you can almost hear Primal Scream and Spiritualized forming a queue to get their prescriptions filled here. A close contemporaneous cousin to The Other Half’s “Mr. Pharmacist”, with lyrics such as “Spend my dough on a great big stack of doctor’s bills” and “Popping pills like a maniac” it’s a harsh, primitive corrective to the lysergics washing over popular music at the time. “’Til The End Of The Day” shows once again their facility as a tribute band, but they don’t take the song anywhere The Kinks’ version doesn’t already go, Aguilar’s freshly rerecorded vocal being all that imbues this take with anything remotely like personality. Closing the first disc, “Psychedelic Trip” is exactly the kind of sub-Floyd instrumental you’d expect to find attached to such a title.

“Let’s Talk About Girls” opens both CDs, but on the second in its released form, featuring the vocals of Don Bennett. Having had it pointed out by the booklet notes it’s readily apparent just how he strains every sinew to mimic Aguilar’s distinctive style, toppling over into parody at points. The quietly remarkable “Gossamer Wings” is positioned at the opposite end of the Watchband’s evolutionary scale, with whirling, white noise electronics, vampirish, proto-goth vocals and a thin, wiry violin, its eerily alien main section giving way to a jazzy outro. If I’m decoding the booklet essay correctly a cover of Gerry & The Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” was actually recorded as a demo by an earlier, pre-Aguilar incarnation of the Watchband. Previous vocalist Danny Phay conjures up an endearingly accurate Edwyn Collins premonition, and the whole shambles and sways like some benign, unwitting blueprint for a goodly proportion of the Scottish indie scene.

The band’s third and final album, 1969’s “One Step Beyond”, was the first to really capture the sound of the group without obstructive post-production interference, meddling and substitution. Ironically, by this time both the band’s lineup and style had drifted far from those with which they made their name, and consequently, a cover of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” excepted, it lacks the magnetic, self-centred drive of their early work. “How Ya Been” is slower and more elaborately plotted melodically, riding the coat-tails of folk rockers such as Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and Love; “Flowers” even sounds like a scuffed-up Cat Stevens.

Finally, we reach the fake Watchband selection, the best of which are performed by otherwise unknown LA combo The Yo-Yoz. Their instrumental “Voyage Of The Trieste” (a.k.a. “The Uncharted Sea”) and “The Inner Mystique” are an entrancing pastiche of early Traffic, right down to the meandering flute and saxophone solos.

The Chocolate Watchband story is a sobering lesson in what can happen when creativity and commerce collide, and one that could perhaps be compiled in a more comprehensible, although hardly more comprehensive, form than “Melts In Your Brain…Not On Your Wrist!”. The fact that the pseudo-Watchband sides have garnered as much respect over the years as the recorded legacy of the real band is not much of a cockle-warming conclusion, unfortunately.