Album Review: The Happy Dragon Band

Deep in the cracks between the above-ground music business, creative artists who couldn’t (or perhaps simply didn’t want to) land a label deal created some fascinating work. To be sure, much of it was idiosyncratic: the so-called gatekeepers in the industry saw as their remit a kind of commercial standard: will it sell? If the answer was a resolute no, a contract was unlikely to follow.

But in such cases, those effectively unsupported artists soldiered on, sometimes making their own records and self-releasing them. Or, as the case may be, pressing the records in very small quantities and then – for whatever reason – not selling any at all.

That’s the case with something called The Happy Dragon Band, a late ‘70s aggregation and brainchild of keyboardist-composer Tommy Court. He recorded one album, the then-song self-titled LP that has recently received its first above-ground/legitimate reissue thanks to Org Music.

Now, is it weird? Well, of course it is. Squealing synthesizers abound, creating an atmosphere that frankly was a good three years ahead of its time. The music doesn’t seem to be influenced by much of anything I can identify, though if your tastes include such artists as 50 Foot Hose and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, then you should definitely seek out this one.

That said, The Happy Dragon Band is more conventionally song-based than what came from those aforementioned synth pioneers. And there’s something approaching a standard instrumental lineup here as well; it’s not merely synths. Players like drummer John Badanjek – later noted for his work with Alice Cooper and many others – are on this record.

There’s a trancey vibe to songs like “In Flight,” though its nightmarish quality and mannered vocals (reminiscent of Japan) aren’t likely to offer peace to the listener. “A Long Time” features atonal shards of guitar (or synth) and vocals that suggest early Mothers or the Residents, with those bizarre vocal lines crisscrossing over the galloping, insistent beat. Deeply weird, and likely to clear the room of less musically adventurous types.

The Happy Dragon Band doesn’t sound like anything else happening in 1978. Despite its title, “Bowling Pin Intro” is a lengthy piece that owes a debt to musique concrete and early Tangerine Dream. But just when you think the whole affair is going to be strange and unremittingly atonal, there’s “Lyrics of Love,” a breezy, almost folk-rock offering. Tom Carson’s vocals are expressive to be sure, but there’s a weirdness about them that keep even this almost-commercial tune in an off-kilter vein.

Seeing a title called “Disco American” might lead one to expect, well, disco. Instead there’s another slab of strangeness. The lyrics do indeed concern the dance music genre, but the music is something else. Imagine Captain Beefheart, Blossom Toes and – I dunno, Mother’s Finest? – all getting together, getting really whacked out and putting together a song-about-disco. Strange, strange, strange, with howling vocals and a thunderous/thudding rhythm section.

Oddly enough, “Astro Phunk” is closer to disco, with a character that suggest P-Fun as played by a bunch of (very talented) white dudes. If you’ve ever heard Utopia’s shelved disco effort Disco Jets, this sounds a bit like that, but it folds in some decidedly skronky synth lines that would send dancers running for the exits. In a good way, I say; it’s one of the LP’s strongest cuts.

“Inside the Pyramid” features comparatively conventional instrumentation supporting a reliably outré vocal arrangement that recalls Joe Byrd and Dorothy Moskowitz circa United States of America. But, but: it has a snaky lead guitar part that roots it (albeit uncomfortably) in the rock idiom. The original record ended with a cacophonous synth extravaganza, “3-D Free (Electronic).”

In cooperation with the shadowy Court, Org Music has appended its reissue with a pair of additional tracks; guess what: they’re weird, too. Wonderfully so.

As the story goes, Court pressed 200 copies in 1978, and didn’t sell any. Today it’s nearly but not quite as rare: the Org Music pressing only adds 1000 units to that total. An original pressing will set you back three figures, should you even encounter one. While they last, the Record Store Day releases from Org are more modestly priced.

If your Throbbing Grsitle and Faust records don’t succeed in send unwanted visitors packing, a copy of The Happy Dragon Band may well do the trick. And if you’re in the mood for something completely free of mainstream vmusical values, something clearly done in the spirit of free artistic expression, you could do much worse than The Happy Dragon Band.