I first heard Space Opera a few years ago on a compilation called "Great White North", a series of albums focusing on Canadian bands from the 1960's to 1980's which is why I've always had it in my head that they were from Canada. The LP inner gatefold notes that the album was recorded at Manta Sound, Toronto, Ontario which is probably why the compilers made such assumptions. It turns out that the band were from Texas, nowhere near Canada!
The Space Opera story starts off in 1964 when The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. 14 year old Scott Fraser was one of the 73 million people who watched the show and decided that he wanted to be in a band of his own. By the end of the 1964 Fraser was playing drums for high school band The Mods and in 1966 they released their lone single, the jangly Beatles/Byrds influenced, "Days Mind The Time". Rumour has it the the band were so influenced by the Byrds that they once performed the "Notorious Byrd Brothers" album as part of their set a week after the albums' release! The singles' b-side is a version of Lennon & McCartney's "It's For You", which was unreleased by the Beatles who instead gave it to Cilla Black. The Mods recorded the track without ever hearing it and Fraser arranged the song using the sheet music and teaching each member of the band their parts.
The band continued with several musicians coming and going and the last know line up of the Mods contained Fraser, Eddie Lively and future Space Opera members David Bullock (guitar)and Philip White (bass). By 1968 the Mods had morphed into Whister, Chaucer, Detroit & Greenhill who joined by Dave Carrick on vocals, Dave Feguson on violin and T-Bone Burnett on songwriting and production duties would release an album "The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, etc" on the UNI record label. Before the album was released Lively had left and the band did little to promote it by means of live performances resulting in poor sales. Thanks to the internet and an article in Mojo magazine the album is finally getting some recognition and is favoured by fans of the folk rock genre. "Unwritten Works" is a well produced album with excellent musicianship which might please fans of the Byrds "Fifth Dimension", Buffalo Springfield and early Fairport Convention. Personally I struggle with Dave Carrick's vocals, which I find a bit dull and would probably not have returned for another listen had it not been for the Space Opera connection.
Brett Owen Wilson (drums) joined Fraser (now on guitar), White and Bullock in 1969 and they renamed themselves Space Opera (due the bands interest in science fiction). The band made some recordings which help them get many gigs around the Texas area including sets at the the Texas International Pop Festival and supports including Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull and the Byrds. In 1971 the band auditioned for CBS in New York and were turned down but were given a deal by the Columbia Records of Canada which granted the band full artistic control including production. which they took full advantage of.
"Space Opera" was recorded at Manta Sound, Toronto during 1972 with each band member sharing the role of producer and taking perfectionism to the next level during lengthy recording sessions which utilized the 16 track recording equipment. After many delays the album was eventually released in March 1973 in the US.
The album opens "Country Max" which starts with some nice vocal acapella harmonies courtesy of Fraser, Bullock and White claiming "I'm in love, that's no lie. You don't need to ask me why cause I'm high, high, HIGH..." this is followed by layers of electric and acoustic guitars all chiming and twanging. Anyone expecting prog at this point will be disappointed. This track was issued as a single in the US on Epic but failed to achieve any chart action. I bet Roger McGuinn would be proud to have "Holy River" in his songbook as it's great tune with what sounds like about a hundred layers of the thinnest, fuzziest guitar ever complete with haunting lyrics "I stood by the water, lonely, I might jump in". Philip White's first composition on the album, "Outlines" sits perfectly between "Holy River" and the 7 minute, self explanatory "Guitar Suite". Harmonising flutes and piano contrasting perfectly against the guitar noodling tracks which sit beside it. As mellow as it gets and the parting lyrics "Take it easily, take it easily" might be a nod to The Eagles who were launched around the time of the recording. It's my favourite song on the album and is reminiscent of America at their best.
Side two starts with the Bread-esque "My Telephone Artist (Has Come and Gone)" followed by "The Riddle", an acoustic number with some orchestration and harpsichord. Next up is "Prelude No. 4" which although it's not a song that you can sing along with, it's guitar hooks grab you in. Scott Fraser's "Lookout" is similar to the style and sound of "Outlines" although not quite as good. The vocal harmonies on "Blue Ridge Mountains" are stunning and demonstrate what a creative band can achieve in the studio without record company influence getting in the way. With a running time of two minutes thirteen, this might have made a better choice for single than Country Max. The record ends with "Over and Over" a Fraser composition which begins as an acoustic song with the lyrics "over and over I go" repeated before bringing back the hundreds of layers of fuzzy guitar and phasing for its long fade out is way better than it sounds in writing. Trust me!
Columbia had lost interest in Space Opera by the time of the albums release mainly due to the band delaying to tour the album whilst waiting for $50,000 worth of equipment to recreate the album in a live environment. By the time the gear turned up the buzz had died. Apparently the few gigs that the band did to promote the album sounded great. Columbia didn't offer another album so a jaded Space Opera called it a day in November 1973. The band remained friends and continued playing together for the next three decades and follow up album "Space Opera II" was released in 2001. The following decade saw the passings of Fraser, Bullock and White. Surviving member Brett Owen Wilson hopes to put out unreleased Space Opera recordings that should see the light of day sometime soon.
Check out the Rock and Reprise website here for a more in depth look at the Space Opera story.