Randy Holden- Guitar God
For those of you with an appreciation for hard, heavy guitar-centric rock from the period, it doesn’t get any better than Randy Holden. His solo album, Population II, is now a highly collectible rarity for good reason: it’s a monster album. If you only have passing knowledge of the man, or look him up on the Internet, the accepted wisdom recites that Holden is “best known for” his work on Blue Cheer’s New, Improved! But that album doesn’t even scratch the surface. In fact, it is partly a Blue Cheer album and partly a Randy Holden album; the dividing line is easy to detect just by listening.
Randy’s defining work is Population II, a solo album on the Hobbit label that dates from 1970. Original pressings are rare, expensive and, according to Randy, don’t come close to reflecting the power and dynamics of what he recorded and mixed in the studio at the time, due to the mastering.
The record was reissued various times over the years, sometimes using an image from an original copy that bore the drill hole mark of a “cut-out.” Pirated copies also exist, both on vinyl and CD.
But, I’m already ahead of myself. I got a chance to talk to Randy, who is funny, smart and as strong-willed as anybody who has taken their share of what life has to give:
TVP: At the time you were creating your “sound” there really was no template, was there?
RH: I played pretty much everything. I started in the late ‘50s, and at the time, had a “surf rock” sound, but that changed as the equipment evolved and permitted me to push the limits. I was striving for a thunderous sound, and was very focused on tone. Though I was playing loud to achieve this, I don’t like distortion—I like clarity, and I kept upgrading my gear to be able to obtain it. I had also started down tuning to “D” early on, when I was still playing in Baltimore (around 1962), and stuck with it.
Ed. Note: Holden’s band, starting as The Iridescents, in Baltimore, relocated to Los Angeles, morphed into the Fender IV and became the Sons of Adam. They were a fixture in the local LA club scene and released several recordings, but Holden, briefly considered to replace Jeff Beck in The Yardbirds, eventually left to join The Other Half, a psych-rock band that started in LA and moved to San Francisco. Holden left after their debut album. 
Holden joined Blue Cheer for their New, Improved! album, a strange mixture of two entirely different sounds. The first side of the album is all Blue Cheer, notorious for their heavy, psychedelic sound and considered pioneers of “heavy metal” largely by virtue of their debut LP, Vincebus Eruptum (famous for its blistering cover version of “Summertime Blues”). But on this album, the band took a different approach, offering up a side full of short pop-psych songs that are largely unremarkable.
Flip the album to Side 2, though, and an entirely different sound emerges- Randy Holden, playing Randy Holden songs, which, to quote Randy, “were a lot louder than Blue Cheer.”There’s a beautiful short piece as the side ends, “Honey Butter Lover,” all filigreed guitar work with an electric edge; that surely would be a classic if expanded into a full-length song. There were a lot of issues with the band, chief among them that Randy wasn’t getting paid, so he moved on.
As Randy put together what would become Population II,with Chris Lockheed (who played drums and keyboards), he got a sponsorship deal with Sunn Musical Equipment Company, known for their powerful amplifiers. Randy asked for 16 200 watt heads with pairs of 15 inch speakers that were later upgraded to a more robust JBL D150 with a “black coil cover.” On stage, Randy played in front of a wall of amplifiers that could deliver LOUD with clarity and punch.
I asked Randy what this was about:
RH: I’ve always been gear-driven. My focus is not just loud, but tone. And to get that, I pushed the equipment harder. I was blowing up speakers constantly before the Sunn amps; the Marshall stacks I used before that had JBL D120s installed in them to withstand the punishment. The Sunn gear was great—it delivered the tone and power I wanted, without the distortion.
TVP: Did you use all 16 Sunn amps when you recorded Population II?
RH: No, I used 8 of them.I know some musicians can use very small amps and overdrive them in the studio, but I was never really a studio musician. I played it live in the studio and to get the sound I was after, it had to be loud and powerful. As I said, I don’t like distortion, that’s why I needed all that amp power.
TVP: What happened with Population II?
I got the sound I wanted on the recording, and the mix was good. We used little oval car speakers to monitor for the mix, because I wanted to hear what most people would hear when the record was played, not what you hear on those big studio monitors that were common then.
But, I fought with the record company to get the album released. They weren’t very interested in it, I kept being told—probably in the next thirty days—but that kept me in limbo for more than six months. I had invested pretty much everything I had in that record, I was tied to a contract, and no record was being released. It was a very tumultuous period for me. I finally just split—went to Hawaii and pretty much gave up on the music business altogether. I only learned about the release of the record much later, and it did not sound as I intended it to; the dynamics were missing—the mastering wrecked it.
TVP: What brought you back to the music?
RH: A fan named Randy Pratt tracked me down—I had returned to the mainland—he had spent four years trying to find me. Once he made contact, he wanted me to take a guitar and start playing again. At first, I resisted the whole idea of returning to music.
But, Randy was persistent and I relented.
There was an odd thing that happened to me when I received the guitar from Randy Pratt, it seduced me, quite literally as I was mentally trying to reject it (psychological fear of pain?), but I played better than when I stopped 24 years prior.
TVP: You hadn’t lost anything in the intervening years?
I could play anything I imagined, and instantly. There was no getting used to it, or a trial period of getting chops back. It was instant full on rock out, playing faster than ever before. I attributed it to the hypersensitive, hyper vigilant emotional state I was in, with so much negative things happening, it was like love came into my heart. Otherwise I have no way to explain what even to me seemed a bit of a phenomenon. I recall Dickie Peterson saying, “Can you still play”? That was odd, since I ripped like never before. Like going without water on an empty desert for so long, and falling into an oasis of blissful beautiful sweet cool water….
TVP: You’ve released several albums since 1997. Tell us a little about those.
RH: Guitar God was released in 1997; I recorded it in 1993. It was done in New York at Pie Studios. Paul Whaley (from Blue Cheer) was on it and brought in the bass player, Robert Bauer. Randy Pratt was the executive producer.
Guitar God 2001 was released in that year—2001. The album has a 23-minute instrumental—it took in all kinds of sounds from different cultures. It also contains a blues song that really doesn’t fit with the rest of the album but….
Surf Guitar God, which was re-mastered in 2007, was originally released in the early 2000s.
Raptor was released in 2008.
Psychedelic Blue,which contains covers, was released in 2015. I have about five other albums “in the can” that I have to finish.
At this point, the recordings are only available through me, on my site. When Guitar God was originally released, it was on Captain Trip Records, a third party that I licensed. But those are now out of print. That recording was made to two-inch tape, which I could conceivably license for reissue on vinyl.
TVP: And eventually, Population II got reissued, in 2005?
RH: Right. It was done by a reissue company from New Jersey.
TVP: But the master tapes are gone?
RH: A lot of time was spent by a lot of people trying to track down those tapes. I read somewhere that Hobbit sold it, and it exchanged hands several times for sums of money, beyond that I have no knowledge what happened to it, aside from seeing multiple bootleg copies put out by various and sundry, vague and ambiguous label names. But we could not find the tapes despite an enormous amount of effort chasing them down. The final word on the Masters, according to Eliot Kissileff from a source he interviewed during the search, was they were lost in the fire at Universal, along with thousands of other Film, and Music Masters.
RH:A good friend re-mastered the album in 2007 on CD. This re-master hasn’t been released on vinyl yet, but I’d like to see that happen. I think this version—the 2007 re-master—is the best reflection of what I was trying to achieve back in 1970.
One of the beauties of Population II is that Holden got an opportunity to reprise “Fruit and Icebergs” which appeared on the Blue Cheer album.
For those who haven’t yet listened to it, Population II is a full on assault, but unlike many of the heavy rock records associated with the pre-metal period, the songs and instrumentation are extremely melodic- not just chord bashing. And instead of distortion and noise, the album is full of intricate playing, double stops, harmonics, feedback and Theremin-like sounds.
The music doesn’t take repeated listenings to “get”—it’s immediately apparent what’s going on here—from the open notes of “Guitar Song” that take you into a hard slow grind with some serious riffs—but, it isn’t flash. Randy Holden pulls every ounce of sound from each note whether it is a sustained held tone, or a ripping lead line. It’s real satisfying stuff too.
You know how guitarists go on larks and excursions? Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a little self-indulgent? This is so pushed to the edge that it is never boring— you are riding herd in front of a wall of sound. This guy must have been something to hear in his heyday— he redefines “heavy” in a way that makes others seem like pretenders.
I’m not normally given to hyperbole in these pages, but all the Sabbath-y clones don’t come close. Clapton in The Cream era probably would have dug this, but Cream wasn’t captured very well on the authorized recordings; they sounded their best live, and the live Cream recordings leave something to be desired.
This one not only captures the ring, it grabs it with big teeth and shakes it to death. Granted, no Jack Bruce vocals here, but the guitar more than satisfies. The interlude between “Fruit and Iceburgs” and its redux is called “Between Time” and has an “All Right Now” echo, but if Free had been playing this way, Kossoff would have never left.
Side two contains two tracks, “Blues of My Mind” and Keeper of My Flame.” Both are great, borne of the same hammered from granite foundation, with Randy’s flourishes adding contrast to the thick, deep sound. “Keeper of My Flame” has moments that remind of “Tales of the Brave Ulysses” but rather than sounding like a faint imitation, it takes it way beyond what Clapton (at his probable peak) sought to achieve—this goes into exploratory territory.
If you like Hendrix but want to hear what really hard, heavy psych can sound like, played by a master, this is your album. It is almost a primer for the sounds that can be extracted from an electric guitar.
Randy, who enjoys a fan base worldwide, was labeled by Unterberger (see note 3) as one of the great unknown guitar heros of the ‘60s— whose work traversed the entire landscape of different sounds from the era. Nothing that good stays secret forever.
Randy’s site is: http://www.randyholden.com/index.html
A nod to Jeff Ferguson for first bringing Population II to my attention in response to a thread I started called “Real Stoner Rock” on the audionirvana.org forum.
Holden’s early career is well documented in a series of interviews with Richie Unterberger and will not be covered in any detail here. See,http://www.furious.com/PERFECT/randyholden.html
 I found a passing mention of a 150 speaker in excerpted comments from Harvey Gerst, who worked at JBL, see http://www.audioheritage.org/vbulletin/showthread.php?5142-Harvey-Gerst-D130&p=46707&viewfull=1#post46707.
‘Snuff Garrett,’ former A&R man for Liberty Records and consummate producer of many hit acts, founded Amigo Studios, where the record was recorded and mixed. The studio was sold to Warner Brothers in the ‘70s, and a number of “big” records were recorded there.
Trying to unravel this part of the history leads to some dead-ends. The Hobbit label was apparently a division of IMC Productions, which was sold to Fanfare Film Productions in 1970. See Billboard, Oct. 3, Oct. 24 (1970). Distribution was handled by GRT, a manufacturer/distributor that went bankrupt in 1979.