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Monday, December 20, 2021

The Perth County Conspiracy - Does Not Exist (1970) [Canadian LP]

The Perth County Conspiracy - The Perth County Conspiracy Does Not Exist

Original 1970s Canadian LP (superior repressing)
Columbia ELS-375 (Discogs)
~ThePoodleBites rip in 96 kHz / 24 bit FLAC + full high-res scans~

 Do you care to keep your head in motion?
Close your eyes and open up your ears
Who you are is only an illusion
And what you are determined by your fears

It wasn't until the last couple of years that I gave the major-label debut from these uncanny Canadian hippies the full-length bout it demands. The miserably NR'd MP3s that had lived on my hard drive for eons made it neigh impossible to play Does Not Exist without an accompanying cloud of disdain and annoyance, hovering over and obfuscating the band's crystalline authenticity, which finally began to emerge upon playback of an LP lent from the stores of the record phantom. While it was surely a revelation hearing this album with all of its character, its ambience, its poetry, its vibrations, all fully intact and breathing, the challenge of this project promptly became equally striking: at the considerable length of nearly 53 minutes, obtaining a digital capture of this spiraling excursion with the broad dynamics unharmed while keeping levels of noise inaudibly low would be challenged by the quiet mastering, the haphazard scale of mass production, and the years of accumulated groove wear which can make such lengthy pieces of repertoire a symphony of hiss and pops. 


But it's certainly worthwhile: sometimes stuck in my head for days on end, several of these "Americanadian" hymns seem to stow away into the brain's tiniest cracks, so that no amount of repeated listening can wash them out. After dozens of play-throughs, the words still inspire pondering in novel fashion, and while the music bares distant resemblances to Fairport Convention or the Incredible String Band, the mood is more like rural America (think CSN) than urban London or vacant Scotland, which provides a somehow refreshing change from those well-loved Canterbury acts. Certainly the top concept folk-psych piece out of Canada and probably one of the best on Earth, Does Not Exist makes me wonder again how masterpieces such as this could be nearly forgotten in a world where inscrutable cacophonies like Oar or Comus or le dernier cri are regarded as "classics" by the avant-hipster. The critical music world, or perhaps the ghosts that control it, have not been fair even in their reassessments, so for this case I will try to even the score.

 Many thanks to C.F. for lending a preliminary copy of this album, and for his indispensable observations!

Original album cover designed by Richard Keelan's wife Connie, a graphic designer from Cleveland, Ohio

Stealing the location in their name from the county in southwest Ontario, the Perth County Conspiracy called the area surrounding the small town of Stratford their home, a place that sits somewhere between Detroit and Toronto, a town rural enough that even today, 50 years later, it is still crowded primarily by agriculture and dairy farms. The group was far from being homegrown Canadian, though; guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Richard Keelan was a Michiganian with previous allegiances to the Detroit garage-folk band The Misty Wizards (along with Ted Lucas from The Spike-Drivers), and fellow folk smith Cedric Smith was an Englishman with a fascination in literature and theater. The "Conspiracy" moniker was inspired by the Chicago Seven trial's controversial definition of a conspiracy as "two or more people in the same place breathing together"; void of defined structure, a spokesman, or any other concrete form.

Relocated to the Canadian countryside from the young age of 9 or 10 years old, by the age of 17 Cedric Smith had dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a folk singer, and began performing at local coffeehouses such as the Black Swan in Stratford around 1961. Local actors were known to frequent the venues, and Stratford being the home to a prominent and renowned annual Shakespeare Festival, Smith had acquired an interest in performing works of the 16th-century writer himself. In 1983 he described his feelings towards the bard as ambivalent; he used the description of a "reactionary old fart who wrote plays to justify the Tudor regime," but he also specifically named the Henry IV plays as his favorites "because of the outlaws in them. I've always connected with outlaws. They're the kind of people who come in to coffee houses late at night."

Smith got his first chance at performance in 1964. Although he had never taken any acting lessons, artistic director Michael Langham asked him to audition for the Stratford company, which succeeded after some brief coaching from Kenneth Welsh. It ended as a quite successful season, but Smith's commitment to acting was sporadic and continued to be interspersed with his farming and folk music interests. After another season with the Stratford company in 1967 and a 1969 production of 'Che!' (Guavara) which went to the Venice Festival, Smith began to focus on working with a part-time collaborator and recent transplant to the Stratford area, Richard Keelan. 

Photo from The Windsor Star, 22 January 1971
Together, the two expats formed -- or perhaps only named -- what they called The Perth County Conspiracy. The Conspiracy was more than just a performing act; at the heart of the coalition was a "rural way of life": a spontaneous happening and loosely-knit community between seven farms of around thirty permanent residents, and many more who were constantly in flux, who met together at the local coffeehouses, talked, discussed, and shared vegetables, bread, nuts, toys, and similar necessities in a communal setting. Keelan explains in the 15 August 1970 edition of the Toronto Daily Star how dynamic the group was: "People are always asking us how many people are in this group... We don't know. It just happens. You may be here two hours or you may be here two years. Any activity that contributes makes you a conspirator. The conspiracy is constantly spreading."

The establishment was not a typical commune in any ordinary sense, though. Keelan stated in the same paper: "We have more of a commune of the mind than a physical thing... In fact, given the distance between our farms, it takes a real effort to get from one to another. Every so often you have to sit quietly by yourself." 

Another one of the Conspiracy members, Lynn Pearl, a Ph.D. in research psychology, states in the 6 March 1971 edition of The Ottawa Citizen: "There are always new faces turning up... One person pays the rent, but in terms of running the house, everybody who is there helps. We grow vegetables and eat from the garden in the summer, and what's left over goes to the Black Swan... The musicians are just the performing arm, but they wouldn't exist without the others."

An obituary for painter and co-Conspirator Jack McClure in a 6 March 2003 issue of The Globe And Mail (another Toronto newspaper) reveals that there was indeed at least one communal farmhouse extant, nicknamed "Puddlewalk," where draft dodgers, artists, actors, musicians, intellectuals, and local hippies would all live, work, and craft under the same roof.

Smith and Keelan began frequently performing with electric bassist Michael Butler, who together would form the core of the Conspiracy's usual musical performances. Trailing along would come a crew of dozens of ever-evolving Conspiracy members, providing camaraderie, moral support, and sometimes musical assistance. By the spring of 1970, the group began to attract local headlines. They became known for mixing theatrics into their musical performances; Smith, with his affinity for acting, would integrate readings of Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, or "scenarios from his latest two drug arrests" mid-song, while Keelan, a "refugee from the glitter trail, keeps up the rhythm with his tapping bare toes."

Early concert ad in The Globe And Mail, 16 January 1970

In March and April the group performed for the Rochdale Peace Centre, an entity formed by another commune where in fact some Conspirators resided, based on the 14th-floor at Rochdale College. (An interesting side note: in the case of a raid, from this high vantage point, any police could be easily seen converging outside, so the residents purposely rigged the elevators to run so slowly that there was sufficient time to clean house before any Mounties could start knocking.) Along with the PCC played fellow Canadians Mother Tuckers Yellow Duck and a band called Leather, and although they performed to sparse crowds, all proceeds generously went to the school's education fund. These Conspirators, now attracting significant attention from local media, also apparently made several live appearances on local radio and television, most of which unfortunately seem to have not survived, or at least have not yet been made publicly available.

The band made headlines again for their performance at the Mariposa Folk Festival on Centre Island, Toronto, where they were a "surprise hit" amongst headliners Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Doug Kershaw, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot.

Toronto Daily Star, 25 July 1970 (recreated / photo by Graham Bezant)
Variety Magazine, 2 September 1970

By this time it became known that the Perth County Conspiracy had signed a contract to record for Columbia. Not much was written about the sessions contemporaneous to the recordings, but later reflections reveal that there were some slight tensions with Columbia which would later grow to outright resentment over the company's dubious monetization strategy for the band's second album, Alive. However, any initial disagreements between the band and the label over the presentation of the music here were minimal, with the band being given much artistic freedom. Budding Columbia engineer Terry Brown helped craft the band's musical collage into album format, but the song arrangements in fact remained very similar to the band's live performances in Stratford and Toronto. Regardless, some participants later lamented that the conglomerate should have tried to record the album without the influence of a big record company -- which in fact the group would later do several times, but with varying levels of musical ingenuity. At any rate, the final product from these well-financed, professional-studio sessions is now generally recognized as the band's crowning musical achievement.

The elaborate album artwork was handled by Richard Keelan's wife Connie, a graphic designer from Ohio, and prominently featured the effort's full name as The Perth County Conspiracy Does Not Exist. This was apparently a bit of a quip for the band, who remarked that their commune was so loosely knit that it barely existed at all. Bryan Johnson explained this in a 8 January 1977 retrospective piece for The Globe And Mail:

"It used to be the Perth County Conspiracy's little joke, something they tacked on underneath their name on record albums or chanted in the background at concerts. 'The Perth County Conspiracy,' in big letters, then in tiny script 'Does Not Exist.' A whole metaphysical discussion ensued if you asked about it. All about how it wasn't a commune or anything, just a loose association of people, and how the instant you defined it, you destroyed it, so really, it didn't exist."

Album release spot in RPM Magazine, 24 October 1970
Though the album was due to be released in September, it seems to have appeared a couple months later, with several local newspapers printing positive initial reviews on 17 November. For a group of hippie folk farmers, the album really is an astounding accomplishment. Conceptual in structure, musically rich, and lyrically complex, it comes across more as a multitude's nitpicked pet project: well-mixed with top-of-the-line equipment, clearly using at least 8 tracks, where sometimes it seems that half of them must've been dedicated to Smith & Keelan's lilting overdubs; each album side bursting with music, as if they were forced to trim each musical idea into its purest form before stitching it with others into a perfectly flowing framework of dual acoustic guitars, bass, lots of vocals, and tastefully added snips of percussion and field recordings. 

The opening track, "Midnight Hour," is a staggering 6-part suite of nearly 7 minutes in length, featuring (in true form) a Smith reading of Dylan Thomas' "In My Craft Or Sullen Art," along with his own "You've Got To Know" sandwiched around Keelan's "Love To Make," the two songwriter's voices blending perfectly throughout the entire recording; perhaps it was just a lucky stroke, but the meld and movement is so perfectly seamless e.g. McCartney-Lennon, and even academic in some sense, that one recognizes these thoughts as pervaded from some highly sophisticated consciousness, typical of the Bob Dylan-esque folk music icons who undoubtedly provided at least some inspiration for these North-American nomads. 

The album soon drifts into "Easy Rider," a gloomy reflection upon the cult movie of the same name. The film certainly must have resonated with this group, a commune and dance crew not unlike the one seen praying for harvest in the movie. Perhaps that's why Keelan sings "Easy Rider is a true story / Easy Rider isn't easy to take..." with the foresight of what might lie in wait for his own conspiracy. Unfortunately the second-half of this track is marred by a strange anti-war gore chant which marks the lowest point for the LP.

The poetic dance of "Truth And Fantasy" followed by the lessons of "Don't You Feel Fine" give way to the side closer, "You Have The Power," with familiar reverberations of the album's opening mantra reappearing before fading into laughter, crickets, and sounds of the country. "The Keeper Of The Key," which opens the B-side and was chosen by the label to mate with "You've Got To Know" on the single release, is a harmonious, layered folk ditty with delicate use of organ during its blooming central section [PL: "you have to be dead from the neck up not to worship this tune."]. "Listen To The Kids" is another moving, contemplative sound collage utilizing rather impressive children's poetry recited from a book called Miracles: Poems By Children of English-Speaking World, originally compiled by Richard Lewis from kids in 18 different countries where English is the mother tongue. Other reviewers have cited this track as a low point for the LP, but I rather adore it, as it strikes me as yet another successful fusion of startlingly poignant literature -- and staggeringly emotive when spoken by a little girl -- onto the Conspiracy's lavish and progressive musical tapestry.

As the Eastern-style strumming of "The Dancer" yields to the album closer "Crucifixation Cartoon," the album reaches what many consider its crux. The mood is rather haunting, with a simplistic descending bass line in the key of D minor, introduced by an acoustic guitar, soon joined by an electric cousin, then accented overhead by pizzicato, later bowed, ukelin; but the lyrics are difficult to parse (for me): "there's a cross on every tree / when you're learning to be free..." It seems perhaps to be a song of finding new love and jubilation, a bit confusing when juxtaposed with the dark mood. Maybe the Picardy third concluding the album is meant as a smile materializing from the shadows, or perhaps it is purely reverence in reflection of the heavy words being spoken.

Album release advertisement from Columbia Records in RPM Magazine, 19 Dec 1970

Crazily enough, even after finishing the sprawling accomplishment of Does Not Exist, the band did not stay out of the studio for long. Two mid-August sessions (with rumors of a third in-progress) were recorded for CBC Radio Canada, still months before their first Columbia release, and only about three weeks after its initial recording. At some point -- the recent reissue specifically claims February 1971, but gives no source other than a sloppily date-stamped label -- there appeared a self-titled transcription disc of these sessions, containing more unique songs performed by the band. While altogether a quite enjoyable record, these radio sessions reveal a much more straightforward folk approach to the PCC's style; gone are the interwoven overdubs, the Shakespearean interludes, the reflective moments of quiet and peace. The band was clearly short of material: three pop covers appear in places where group originals could have outshined. Nonetheless, this second album was finally treated to a remarkable reissue from the master tapes in 2018 on the Flashback label. Richard Morton Jack et al. have done the psych/folk world a massive favor for rereleasing this rare record the right way, on CD and vinyl with astounding sound quality and proper licensing, but for myself and many others (perhaps even the aforementioned included), these radio sessions will never replace the exquisite statement delivered by the band's Columbia debut. However, the fact that Does Not Exist was originally released on a major label does not bode well for small reissue labels, who are unable to front the larger licensing fees. 

Cedric Smith, his wife, and Doris Chayne at the Mariposa Festival (photo by Graham Bezant / colorized)

So, having never been reissued, or even bootlegged, it's easy to understand why a vinyl transfer of Does Not Exist is necessary for proper listening. I have heard two different dubs of this album which have circulated over the years, both predictably noisy and doused with bad noise reduction. This one comfortably tramples both. I've had two clean copies of this LP, neither suitable for clean-up, but I truly lucked out by finding a superior one (still in the shrink!) from the collection of an old Acid Archives contributor, which truly plays its grade. This is one of the early '70s repressings (probably pressed circa 1971-72), which according to the research of C.F. utilizes new stampers with improved fidelity over the "two-eye" originals. This is easy to believe, as it tends to be the case with most LPs released on Columbia -- contrary to the usual collector strategy of finding the earliest first pressings.


Mastering note: as usual, I have tried to create this digital master with as much faithfulness to the original master recording (and to the original artistic intention) as possible. There are some tape dropouts at the end of side 1 which have been left intact to reflect the original recording.

The Perth County Conspiracy:
Cedric Smith: guitar, vocals, readings, maracas, tangents
Richard Keelan: guitar, vocals, timpani, keyboards, fire, dulcimer, penny whistle

Photo from The Hudson Star, 12 February 1970
Michael Butler: electric bass
Fred W. Baue: ukelin on tr. 13
the rotten goodwood barnwood band and chorale
"... and a cast of thousands ..."

Track listing:
1) "Midnight Hour" — 6:46
  • (i) "You've Got To Know"
  • (ii) "Love To Make"
  • (iii) "You've Got To Know (Reprise)"
2) "Epistle To A Borderliner" — 2:02
3) "Easy Rider" — 4:45
  • (i) "Easy Rider"
  • (ii) "Americanadian Way"
4) "Truth And Fantasy" — 5:51
  • (i) "Truth And Fantasy"
  • (ii) "Come To The Edge"
  • (iii) "Fantasia"
  • (iv) "Truth And Fantasy (Reprise)"
5) "Don't You Feel Fine" — 2:46
6) "You Have The Power"
— 4:52
7) "Keeper Of The Key"
— 3:23
8) "Lady Of The County"
— 3:32
9) "Listen To The Kids"
— 3:00
10) "Trouble On The Farm"
— 2:19
11) "Excerpt From 'As You Like It'"
— 1:25
12) "The Dancer"
— 5:44
13) "Crucifixation Cartoon"
— 6:27

Equipment Lineage:
– Audio-Technica VMN40ML stylus on AT150MLx dual moving-magnet cartridge
– Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USB direct drive professional turntable (internal stock preamp/ADC removed)
– Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra preamp with dedicated Zero Zone linear power supply
– Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 MkII (96 kHz / 24 bit)
– Adobe Audition CC 2020 (recording)
– iZotope RX 8 audio editor (manual declicking, EQ subtraction, additional adjustments)
– Audacity 2.3.3 (fades between tracks, split tracks)
– Foobar2000 v1.6.6 (tagging, dynamic range analysis)
 
Full album available for listening on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/sRtGCvOM3Zo
 
Thanks for taking the time to read my posts and check out my blog. I'd greatly appreciate it if you leave a small comment below. Notes from my readers are what inspire me to keep going. Thanks!
MEGA: https://mega.nz/folder/Y1x0CS4B#5IOQoXInGuwrLOEYUw2mPQ

Enjoy!  :)

"Perth County's happy hippie Conspiracy" -- full-page feature in the Toronto Daily Star, 15 August 1970

Jim Cairns tending the Conspiracy garden (photos by Graham Bezant // bottom colorized)




Further reading:
- also a nice review by Patrick Lundborg
- the liner notes in the Flashback reissue of the CBC Radio album (available here)

Cedric Smith holds Richard Keelan's 1-year-old daughter Caitlin at Stratford Memorial, 8 June 1970 (photo by Harold Barkeley)

21 comments:

  1. Wow, one of my favourites. Patrick made a CD-R copy for me from his vinyl, but this one beats it. Many many thanks!!!

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    1. Great to hear, thanks! Many hours of manual restoration work went into this one.

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  2. Thanks for giving this vinyl only album THE POODLE BITES treatment ....Cheers !

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  3. Many thanks TPB !!! HOw grat to see this december coming to n end with another masterful rip from you!

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  4. Man, I cannot thank you enough for this. One of my all time favs. Big ol' Cheers to you.

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  5. An excellent selection to close out the year on a big note. Thanks!

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  6. Great to see you back posting here, TBP -- and with this great offering too! Thank you for a super end to the year.

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  7. Many thanks once more TPB for another great vinyl transfer.

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  8. Fantastic, a very special album, and sounding just STUNNING. Will become my go-to version, no doubt. Please keep on sharing such beauties with us. Yours Causinger

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  9. Thank you and Happy New Year!

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  10. Thanks everyone for sharing such nice comments here, it really means a lot -- and yes, happy new year to all! :)

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  11. Thanks for sharing another gem I had never heard of before! And such a perfect transfer.

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  12. I've always liked this LP and I'm very glad to get this version. Thanks very much!

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  13. This record is a whole world in itself. You can tell they had a lot of fun making it, and I've never heard anything else like it really. You did a F. A. N. T. A. S. T. I. C. job on the restoration here. That quiet part with the chimes, I can't believe there's no crackle there! Not one!! And your write-up is better than most liner notes I've ever read. It's really a full package that I feel kind of bad not having to pay any money for. Thank you thank you thank you.

    P.S. That machine gun fire gets me every time!

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  14. Thanks for this masterpiece, i finally listened to it and i'm seriously impressed by it, this is a great prove that a lot of studio effects, fuzz, wah, delay and rock instrumentation is not needed to make high quality psychedelic music. And i must say that this is not for the typical hipster crowd that is looking for cacophonous, incoherent stuff like the things you've mentioned in the beginning.

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  15. Also, i forgot to mention that some of the songs reminded me to The Beat of The Earth's second album "The Electronic Hole" but without the fuzz walls and the rock instrumentation.

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  16. My CD of the CBC album arrived a little while back.

    The liner notes reminded me of the type you do (in a very good way; I mean that as a compliment). Everything you said about it is true, but I really like it all the same. Sure, it lacks the twists and turns that the Columbia one, but I think that because they were using up all of their material for the second one, they have a somewhat more diverse selection.

    I enjoy the covers especially. Hurdy Gurdy Man I love nearly as much as Donovan's original, and on my first listen to I Shall Be Released, while I was lying on a secret hill in a park, looking up at the sky, it felt like the heavens were just about to open, break through the clouds and show me the way.

    I love the album, and see it as a twin to Does Not Exist.

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  17. hello...i am the Richard of this group y'all are praising, for which i'm ever-thankful and humbled ... our internet notoriety/fame seems to have out-stripped our actual popularity back in the time it was happening. ...i do have a correction for the Poodle re: the caption under the last photo; that's Cedric hoisting MY daughter Caitlin in the air - he had a daughter later later in life, but not at this time. of course, there's all kinds of misinformation online about us - small errors, stupid assumptions, made-up stuff . . . it runs the gamut....but i thought i'd at
    least lay claim to my own daughter ...heh. (it's all good...)

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    1. Hi Richard, thanks a lot for the comment & correction, I've fixed it now :) The original caption was given by the photographer, but I think we'd all be very curious to hear your stories and recollections instead! I actually just got off the phone with a friend who was telling me about a commune he lived with in Ferry, Michigan in the early '70s -- it's funny that I'm actually from the midwest but somehow had no idea about this part of the area's history...!

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