(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #63, March 2020)
Unearthing Electronic Gold
There are two types of Beatles fan in the world. Those who, when committing their White Album vinyl to cassette, pressed pause to omit the jarring, unsettling sound collage of ‘Revolution 9’. And then there are those who consider it to be a critical, crucial part of their canon; a vital snapshot of John Lennon’s internal monologue, and a violent insight into the troubled world of 1968.
Pennsylvania’s Bill Holt clearly fell into the latter category. Not only are the two 25-minute tracks on this extraordinary DIY album intended as loose sequels to the Beatles’ most experimental eight-and-a-half minutes (the titles, ‘Program 10’ and ‘Program 11’ are crafty clues), but Holt was so touched by the muse that he sacrificed virtually everything to create them. A husband and father in his late teens, he spent the entire 1960s suited and booted on the career ladder, a successful marketing executive at the globe-straddling 3M conglomerate. But, in 1972, aged 28, he sensationally quit the day job, no longer able to resist the temptation to emulate the music that was increasingly distracting him from the corporate boardroom.
“I had a great career,” he would tell the Cyclic Defrost website, thirty years later. “But I gave it up, as everyone around me seemed to be having more fun than me and my briefcase.” Despite no previous experience as a writer or performer, Holt armed himself with on Ovation acoustic guitar, a four-track tape machine and a Moog Sonic Six synthesizer, and holed himself up in the family basement. When he emerged a year later, Dreamies was the unlikely result.
Unwittingly, Holt had set the template for virtually every lo-fi pop experimentalist since. ‘Program 10’ is the more hypnotic of the two suites, initially based around a repeated four-chord guitar sequence and Holt’s cracked, delicate voice. “Take me off to sleep and I’ll be free,” he sings, sounding not unlike Lennon himself. But what begins as relatively orthodox folk-pop (albeit backed by a loop of cricket chirrups) is quickly subsumed by a barrage of atonal synth and snippets of contemporary news bulletins, recorded live from Holt’s own TV set. There are fragments of Nixon and Kennedy, samples of boxing commentaries and NASA control room chatter: the very epitome of Space Race America. And, just as with the White Album itself, the shadows soon begin to lengthen.
‘Program 11’ is nothing less than a descent into chaos. Not musically: Holt has been adamant that his recordings were meticulously planned. But here, sinister synth drones throb like a nagging migraine, and the remaining fragments of speech are subliminal and indistinct, a dark reflection of increasing political turmoil. It’s clearly music touched by both the spectre of Vietnam and the growing shame of Watergate.
Self-released, and advertised mail-order, it perhaps predictably failed to sell. But the relative success of 21st century reissues have sparked the muse again: a follow-up, ‘Program 12’, arrived in 2006, and news-based sound collages have been posted at dreamies.com on a regular basis since late 2010. Once again, spiritually at least, Bill Holt is back in the basement.