Probably the most notable thing about Sam Gopal‘s Escalator when it was released in 1969 was that the band’s namesake percussionist substituted tabla for the standard rock drumkit. Not to take away from that, as it was an interesting turn for a London-based band even in that time of Eastern-influenced psychedelic rock becoming somewhat mainstreamed (Gopal himself was born in Malaysia), but if the group is something of a footnote today, it’s more because of vocalist/guitarist Ian Willis, who by the time he left Hawkwind to form Motörhead some six years later would adopt the universally-recognized moniker of Lemmy Kilmister.
Lemmy‘s involvement in Sam Gopal isn’t exactly a secret — prior to joining, he played guitar in Blackpool-based The Rockin’ Vickers from 1965-1967 and those seeking a sample of his work before and around Motörhead were afforded an easy opportunity with 2006’s Damage Case compilation — but neither is it widely advertised, and when he finally decides that Planet Earth isn’t cool enough to hold him and departs this mortal coil, Escalator isn’t likely to be mentioned as part of his considerable list of landmark or otherwise influential works. Still, for devotees of proto-heavy rock and psychedelia, the album has much to offer in the moody wanderings of “Grass” and sweet, pre-“Planet Caravan” vibe of “Angry Faces.”
With fellow guitarist Roger D’Elia and bassist Phil Duke, Lemmy brings a nascent fuzz to “The Dark Lord,” which was included on that Damage Case compilation no doubt for its theme as much as the song itself, but the bulk of Escalator is candlelit British psych, the subtly bass-driven “The Sky is Burning” having little time for the kind of raucous blues jamming Cream were doing at that point, “You’re Alone Now” aside, or even the swagger of Jimi Hendrix, for whom a young Lemmy famously roadied. Maybe Sam Gopal were a little behind the times, then, but if so, the distinction is moot since the album fits with its general era and precedes in both tone and execution the kind of heavy-rock-into-prog explosion that UFO, Uriah Heep, the second lineup of King Crimson and, indeed, Hawkwind were about to unleash on the UK rock scene as the likes of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin made their way to megastardom behind Pink Floyd, who’d already been signed to a major label (EMI) for two years.
Hearing Escalator through a filter of hindsight is inevitable, but the stoned-out push of “You’re Alone Now” seems prescient in asking, “Can you hear me on the wind?/Are you thinking of what might have been?” and as much as Lemmy‘s presence dominates even though the vocals are mostly given to a rudimentary melodic garage-type drawl fitting to the music, the songs have value beyond novelty for anyone who’d take them on as part of a larger exploration through the roots of heavy. Putting Sam Gopal next to earliest Vanilla Fudge doesn’t seem inappropriate when they get into Donovan‘s “Season of the Witch” and rough it up a bit, but the sleaze that’s inevitably brought to the already-sleazy Doors cover “Back Door Man” — a bonus track on the 2010 Esoteric Recordings reissue — helps to give Escalator a personality of its own, as much of that might be wrapped up in a reading of the album through the Lemmy context.
It was that Esoteric Recordings reissue that I wound up with, following a recommendation that I check the record out because, with or without “the Motörhead dude,” it’s quality psych. I’ve found that to be precisely the case, and found that I’m drawn to repeat listens of Escalator not because of the personnel, but because of the songs they execute. If you’re not already familiar, give it some time to settle in.