The Count Five ‘Psychotic Reaction’

[originally appeared in Shindig!  issue 114]

When Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation was unleashed upon the world in 1972, it blew the ears and minds of many listeners who had no idea that so much great music had been lurking in the 1960s US pop charts. Among the rediscovered gems included on that anthology was ‘Psychotic Reaction’ by Count Five. With its repetitive rhythms, nasally vocals, wailing harmonica, and piercing fuzztone guitars, it epitomizes the garage-punk sound that Jon Savage describes as “pure noise and texture”.

Count Five hailed from San Jose, just south of San Francisco. According to historian Paul Kauppila, the Bay Area’s mid-60s music scene was “polarized”. South Bay bands had the same psychedelic influences as bands in the more prominent San Francisco scene, but their material was more

pop-oriented – partly because, rather than playing to hippies zoning out on LSD,  they were playing for “teen dance crowds” in community centres and converted roller rinks. Indeed, Count Five not only played to teens, but were still teenagers themselves – four of the band’s members were first- and second-year college students, and one was a high school senior.

The band followed the same path of musical evolution as many of its peers. Guitarist John “Mouse” Michalski and bassist Roy Chaney started playing together in a surf band, which, with the ’64 addition of harmonica player/singer Kenn Ellner and drummer Craig “Butch” Atkinson, became the British Invasion-style group The Squires. But The Squires then acquired something that made them unique among the South Bay’s Brit-wannabe bands: a member who was actually from the British Isles. Singer John “Sean” Byrne grew up in Dublin, where he had played in beat groups, and had moved to San Jose to live with his brother.  He told an interviewer that one evening he heard a band practicing in a garage across the street, so he “went over and asked if I could sit in”. Another version of the story is that Ellner heard Byrne playing his guitar at school and singing the most un-garagey ‘Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter’, and invited him to a band rehearsal. Either way, the Squires and Byrne took to each other, and Byrne became part of the band.

The newly rechristened Count Five, managed by Ellner’s father, played numerous gigs around the Bay Area, including a Battle of the Bands where they triumphed over local singer Stevie Nicks. Byrne remembered that after the competition, Nicks came up to him and said, “You’re good, but you’re not as good as me.” Ellner’s father approached several record labels in search of a deal, but despite Count Five’s popularity as a live act, no one was interested – until a DJ at a fraternity party suggested they contact Double Shot Records, a new label headed by Los Angeles businessmen Hal Winn and Joe Hooven. In early ’66, the band auditioned for Winn, and emerged with a recording contract.

‘Psychotic Reaction’ originated from jams during band rehearsals, with Byrne providing the title – it was a term he had heard in his college psychology class. The instrumental number became one of the high points of Count Five’s live set, but according to Ellner, his father felt it needed words, and at one point sent Byrne home from band practice with the instructions “Don’t come back without lyrics”. Ellner described ‘Psychotic Reaction’ as a “truly collaborative effort” that evolved through live performances and through feedback from “management, agents, friends, and fans”. Winn and Hooven added the line “And it feels like this!” that kicks off the wildly accelerated instrumental break. Ellner claimed the song was “modelled” after The Yardbirds’ ‘I’m A Man’, but Byrne stated that “I like the Yardbirds but they did not influence [the song]”.

‘Psychotic Reaction’ was released as Double Shot Records’ second single, and went to #5 on the Billboard US pop charts. The Psychotic Reaction album quickly followed the hit single, with its cover showing the members of Count Five peering into a dug-out hole. Music writer Lester Bangs, in his legendary essay “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”, confessed that he grew to love the “grungy and rumbled” album but was initially put off by that cover image. “The members of the band star[ed] down atcha in the sepulchre with bug-eyed malice. Really eerie, except that they were all wearing madras shirts and checkered slacks from [American department store chain] Penney’s”.

The chart success of ‘Psychotic Reaction’ naturally spawned several cover versions, the first of which came from the pseudonymous Positively Thirteen O’Clock. This one-off collaboration between Texas DJ Jimmy Rabbitt and Mouse And The Traps omitted the repeats of the original, but added a notable tone of aggression and menace. Then the low-budget Hit label got on board with the anonymous Jalopy Five, apparently a group of Nashville studio musicians. Despite the label’s reputation for churning out quickly-recorded covers, this ‘Psychotic Reaction’ has some very accomplished harmonica playing dominating the mix. 

An unexpected cover also appeared on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ album Hitsville. Dee and his band were the house band in the early ‘60s at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, where celebrities and the hoi polloi were regularly photographed awkwardly doing the Twist on the dance floor.  Hitsville is mostly covers of songs that might appeal to the ‘Peppermint Twist’ crowd, so ‘Psychotic Reaction’ stands out as a bit of an odd duck; Dee’s version is somewhat sedate, although the drummer gets in some excellent rapid-fire beats during the freakout part.

Of course, record labels wanted to get a piece of the psychedelic pie while it was still hot, and that meant ‘Psychotic Reaction’ regularly popped up on albums by previously unknown but vaguely hip-sounding bands: i.e. studio musicians put together by labels trying to make a quick buck. Ironically, though, some of these albums are marvelous. The Underground were so anonymous that all anyone seems to know about them were that they were Canadian; despite the cash-in title, their ’67 album Psychedelic Visions is great, and their ‘Psychotic Reaction’ demonstrates that whoever they were, they were very competent musicians. Michael Lloyd, of West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band fame, and Kim Fowley were the masterminds behind The Fire Escape’s Psychotic Reaction album. A comment on YouTube from composer Bob Safir, who says he played on the album, claims the group was actually an LA band called The Cajuns who were “thrown into Gold Star Studios [where] they had us play a bunch of ‘60s songs; the so-called producers made a fortune, we got zip”. The Leathercoated Minds’ A Trip Down The Sunset Strip, produced by Snuff Garrett, was framed as a soundscape that simulated a walk along the famous street. That gave JJ Cale and his collaborators the chance to play ‘Psychotic Reaction’ sounding like a trio of jug-band sidewalk buskers with cars honking at them.  

Count Five’s Double Shot label mate Brenton Wood also had a go at the song. His ‘Psychotic Reaction’ appeared on his album Oogum Boogum and was somewhat overshadowed by the success of the two singles from that album, ‘The Oogum Boogum Song’ and ‘Gimme Little Sign’. However, his version is tremendous, with a soulfully falsetto vocal, and a Hammond-style organ nearly melting down during the agitated instrumental break.

Count Five recorded several subsequent singles for Double Shot, but a second album never materialized. Amidst vague rumours of financial conflict with the label, the group disbanded in ’68, walking away from a million dollars in concert bookings – allegedly so that the members of Count Five could go back to school. ‘Psychotic Reaction’ was later seized upon with great enthusiasm in the mid-70s by punks and by garage revivalists. It was one of the songs the Sex Pistols played in their earliest rehearsals together. Versions by The Cramps, Nash the Slash, Eugene Chadbourne, the Fuzztones, and the Radiators from Space all helped to bring ‘Psychotic Reaction’ back into public consciousness, where it continues to resurface in movie and TV soundtracks, anthologies and compilations, and the repertoires of bands all over the world.  Count Five may have only had one hit, but what a glorious hit it was.

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