One band that unfairly fell victim to this was The Music Machine. Led by Sean Bonniwell, they hit the top twenty in 1966 with “Talk Talk,” one of the rawest singles released at that time. It was also prescient of what was to come, with its down-tuned guitars, later appropriated by Black Sabbath and any number of heavy metal bands, and its lyrics about a rebellious outcast (“My social life’s a dud/My name is really Mud!”), combined with Bonniwell’s snarling vocal delivery, are punk-like in their attack and intent. It’s one of the great one-offs of its era.
The Music Machine had one more factor going for them: a truly distinct image. With their Beatle bowl cuts dyed pitch black, dressed in all black, and wearing one black glove on their strumming hands, they definitely, and defiantly, cultivated a darker, more dangerous image that stood apart from bands that were still aping the Beatles’ matching suits style.
There would be no discussion about The Music Machine if they were just about their look and one song, though. They only managed to put out one album during the heyday of their original lineup, but Turn On is a great, if greatly flawed, debut, showcasing a band with a unique style and a songwriter whose skills went beyond one-hit wonder status.
“Talk Talk” leads off the record, being the big hit, but the high quality continues with “Trouble,” another hard charging number, this time based around a complex guitar and organ riff. Bonniwell’s lyrics effectively convey its mood of paranoia and desperation, with lines like “If you’ve got the time/Help me ascertain/How to rectify the growing mental pain” standing out as particularly intelligent and crafted. And to top it all off, the band has the good sense to throw in some haunted house organ sounds to add to its creepy effect. “Trouble” stands as the high point of the record, a perfect summary of what The Music Machine could do with its potential.
The rest of the original songs, while not quite reaching the level of greatness located in its first two tracks, all stand as a testament to what a truly original songwriter Sean Bonniwell was. His lyrics stand as more thoughtful and well-written than many of his peers, and certainly more than any number of contemporary garage rock hits. Whether tackling teenage angst (“Trouble,” “Talk Talk), breakups (“The People In Me”), or even sexism (“Masculine Intuition”), he does so with literate lyrics that show a grasp on complex vocabulary (always an underrated skill) that pushes the songs past traditional garage rock and into something resembling Art.
If this record consisted of all original material, this would near-flawless. However, any analysis of Turn On would be incomplete without discussing its major failing: cover songs. At the insistence of their record label, and out of necessity for other bands of their ilk, The Music Machine covered popular contemporary material that was thought to help boost sales of the record beyond the big hit. However, Sean Bonniwell was not lacking for songs, and wanted the album to be all-original. Reluctantly, he agreed to cover material in order for the record to see the release.
That reluctance is audible in almost every one of the covers, whether covering Neil Diamond (“Cherry Cherry,” complete with flute) or ? and the Mysterians (“96 Tears,” of course), the band sounds a bit uninspired, trying to have their energy carry over, but not quite succeeding. The only time they transcend the material is their version of “Hey Joe,” which is at the least more terrifying than any other released version of the song.
However, the record retains its lost-classic status on the basis of its original material. It’s not often that a band has the alchemy of The Music Machine: an almost perfect combination of style, songwriting, and sound that still sounds completely its own. And they couldn’t have come around at any other time than the garage rock era, a time when anyone, even a group as inherently odd as The Music Machine, could strike gold with one big hit. Very few garage bands could put together an entire album of gold, however. The Music Machine couldn’t do it either, but with Turn On, they came closer than most.