mon 15/07/2024

East of Underground: America’s Vietnam-era Army Makes its Own Music | reviews, news & interviews

East of Underground: America’s Vietnam-era Army Makes its Own Music

East of Underground: America’s Vietnam-era Army Makes its Own Music

Fascinating document of GIs' musical respite from a 1970s war zone

The only surviving photograph of East of Underground playing live. Guitarist Lewis Hitt pictured right

Whether it’s the British troupes which inspired It Ain’t Half Hot Mum or Bob Hope’s visits to Vietnam, the armed forces have long recognised that entertaining the troops is central to keeping on-going campaigns on an even keel. In 1971, the US army went a step further, using bands of serving soldiers both to entertain and as a recruitment tool. For the bands, it was also a way of avoiding being sent to Vietnam.

The East Of Underground Hell Below box set, which collects the albums the army released, is more than a musical artefact. It offers a window on an until-now barely known aspect of Vietnam-era America.

In the Sixties, America’s military was forced to acknowledge what was going in youth culture. Not only good PR for the army, it was a useful strategy for keeping control of its forces. Recruits and conscripts were going to (at least) be aware of anti-war protests and young adults were becoming increasingly vocal. For the army, taking music on board became a way of attempting to address the concerns of the new intake.  

East of Underground Hell Below coverAmerica had, and still has, bases scattered across the globe. Germany’s music scene was, since the very early Sixties, bolstered by visiting acts from the US and Britain, including The Beatles. A massive part of the economy keeping this ticking over were servicemen on leave or out on passes. The Monks, a band of ex-GIs based in Germany, sang jagged anti-war rants like “I Hate You” and “Complication”. They were later covered by The Fall.

In 1970 the US Special Services Agency came up with its own take on the hippy era with Experience ‘70, a touring extravaganza billed as “a psychedelic soldier show”. Later that year, the US Army in Germany held the first of its winningly titled Original Magnificent Special Services Entertainment Showband Contests. The competition was only open to bands formed by those in service, like The Brothers and Soul-on-Rye. There’s no evidence for what they sounded like.

But the following year's competition led to the pressing of a double album featuring the two winning acts, Soap and East of Underground. Each band was given two sides. Copies of the original vinyl survive in low double figures but this reissue, released with the cooperation of the US army, makes the music widely available for the first time.

East Of Underground Lewis HittThe recording quality is primitive – count-ins weren't edited out. Soap are OK, and fit the showband brief with wobbly covers of “You’ve Got a Friend”, “I Feel the Earth Move” and “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” – GI’s wives were in the bands, too. Their take on “Southern Man” is best described as naïve. East of Underground, though, are a revelation, primitive garage-funkers who take on Sly & the Family Stone and Santana with ragged glory. Their “Hell Below” gives the box set part of its title. It's not known what happened to most members of each band but Lewis Hitt (picured left), East of Underground’s guitarist, has resurfaced in Alabama and given his account of the times in the box set's booklet.

A single album was released after 1972's competition, with a side apiece given over to The Black Seeds – a winningly rickety harmony soul outfit – and The Sound Trek – a more-polished Philly soul-inclined combo.

Despite this reissue, these albums remain mysterious things. The box set's booklet goes into the story as much as it can, drawing on the scant surviving documentation. Music journalist Kurt Loder was at the 1971 competition, but told the compilers he couldn’t remember it. If the servicemen in these bands – who hopefully survived their term in the army – come across this release, it’s a fair bet they’ll remember their brief spell in these bands.

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