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Re-released sitar and rock cover recordings from Sixties era just "meh"

Gear Fab Records
The groovy cover of "Sitar & Strings" by The Nirvana Sitar and String Group, from 1968.
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ALBUM REVIEW: Sitar & Strings by The Nirvana Sitar and String Group / Born on the Road: Easy Rider featuring Various Artists (Gear Fab Records) 2014

When I was 10 or so, a group of anonymous Dutch studio musicians and singers (including a guy from the band Golden Earring), using the moniker “Stars on 45,” released a single (on 45 RPM vinyl, of course!) of that same name, with the added word “Medley” on it because they strung together a bunch of Beatles songs (and a few others), linked with an underlying disco beat. It was a favorite at the roller rink I would go to (Eight Wheels), along with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” and Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.” Sometimes they’d throw an older song on, like “Put Your Hand in the Hand” by Ocean (1971) or any number of early rock era hits by Little Richard or Elvis.

It was a thing for awhile, this “Stars on 45” phenomenon. In fact, I would later realize that the whole “knock-off” recording industry was a pretty big deal. That’s why those K-Tel ads on TV would say “original hits by the original stars.” Sometimes you wouldn’t know if that ABBA record was really the Swedish superstars or some Danish copycats trying to get a quick cash-in, or, as they called it in the industry – “exploito!”

So, coming across this double LP featuring some group called The Nirvana Sitar and String Group (Sitar & Strings), covering late 60’s rock hits like The Association’s “Never My Love,” “The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” but as sitar-and-string instrumentals, well, I had to get it!

Yes, after Beatle George Harrison picked up a sitar in a London music shop, while filming Help! in 1965, and used it on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” the Indian classical music instrument further popularized by sitar master Ravi Shankar and became the must-have exotic instrument to have on your pop record between 1966 and 1972.

Well, it was in 1968 that the Sitar & Strings LP was released, featuring some of the above cover songs. There is very little about just who was in The Nirvana Sitar and String Group, as these “hired guns” were rarely credited on the album jackets.

Who were they? Where are they now? (Gear Fab Records)

Still, listening to these sitar-fueled covers of Motown classics like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (originally a Supremes song remade by psych-rockers Vanilla Fudge) and "House of the Rising Sun," is fun, if for the fact that the songs are drenched in raga-minded sounds that were part of a serious fad that year.

As for the sitar player, well, he/she is "okay." Not great, and probably not classically trained. The guy who re-released this on Gear Fab Records in 2014 - Colorado-based Roger Maglio - suggests listeners "turn up the volume, light up the Lava Lamp, and groove out!" Not bad advice, even if the cover of Spanky & Our Gang's "Sunday Will Never Be The Same" is a bit cringeworthy at times.

The "flipside" of this Gear Fab collection is another "exploito" cash-in called Born on the Road: Easy Rider, released in 1970. With the Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda cult classic about freedom in late-Sixties America, seen from the back of a motorcycle, it had a dramatic impact on the wider culture, turning out to be the third-highest grossing film of 1969. Plus it spawned some big hits from its groovy soundtrack, including Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" and tracks from The Byrds ("Wasn't Born to Follow"), The Jimi Hendrix Experience ("If 6 Was 9"), The Band ("The Weight") and others.

The music on Born on the Road included European studio band The Tonics, going under various studio band monikers from The Automatic Blues Inc., Ten O'Clock Bubble Gum Train, and the Black Kids, among others. This was common in those days - think The Archies, 1910 Fruitgum Co. and The Cuff Links, for instance.

With a band called Electric Food (would be active in the 1970's under other names) covering "Born to Be Wild," it's adequate, but lacking the metallic punch of the original. And then there is their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Up Around the Bend," which sounds as if it is a beat behind and just, well, dog tired.

Not surprisingly, it is The Ten O'Clock Bubble Gum Train doing a version of the strummy, bubblegum pop number "Hey Little Girl." 

And an actual, working English rock band, John Dean & The Trakk, were featured (reminded me a bit of It's A Beautiful Day) here doing a San Francisco-styled psych-rock number called "Your Whole Life Through." 

Bluesy rock numbers like "Lana," by The Automatic Blues Inc. were heavy on the bottom end, with solid rhythms, but lacking substance. Oddly, "Lana" is essentially Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Let It Ride," which would be a hit for that group a few years later.

In all, the Born on the Road collection is a half-baked mess, while the Sitar & Strings collection simply makes more sense in the context of the Indian music fad of that era. 

Sitar & Strings: 3.5/5 Rusties

Born on the Road: Easy Rider: 2.5/5 Rusties

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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