The U.S. Army's Rock 'N' Roll Past

Oct 30, 2011
Originally published on October 30, 2011 7:22 pm

The thought of army music evokes a certain tradition — say, trumpets and drums in the style of "Pershing's Own." But that tradition was set on its ear back in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the PFCs stationed overseas formed their own pop bands. Instead of breaking them up, Army brass sent them on tour.

East of Underground was one such band — a multiracial, seven-piece group stationed in Germany at the tail end of the Vietnam War. They were selected during something called "The U.S. Army's Original Magnificent Special Services Entertainment Showband Contest" — let's just call it a battle of the bands. The winners toured other military bases and made records.

Those recordings were lost for decades, until a collector discovered an East of Underground LP in 1997. After that, the search was on — for as many of these Army bands as they could find. A new compilation pulls together some of those old records — it's called East of Underground: Hell Below.

David Hollander produced the compilation. He also wrote the liner notes, which reveal a surprising fact: The U.S. Army spends an estimated $200 million a year on music, and is the largest single employer of musicians in the country.

"I was shocked when I found that out myself, but it kind of makes sense," Hollander tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "All the branches of the armed services have always included music as part of their mission. It's there to boost morale, it's there to provide entertainment and comfort for soldiers, it's there to sort of represent what the U.S. is — musically, culturally — to the rest of the world."

Lewis Hitt played guitar in East of Underground. Like all the other members, he was a draftee, and had come from a tiny town in Mississippi. Hitt says he had already been in one Army band by the time he joined the group.

"I initially was stationed in Korea. I was able to get into a band there. When I left Korea, the first thing I did when I got to Germany was to find Special Services, which happened to be right next to my barracks," Hitt recalls. "I met the singers and the other players and we got together and played, and it just kind of all meshed together."

The songs East of Underground played weren't your run-of-the-mill patriotic marches — in fact, some of them included controversial lyrics about race and politics. Hollander says it's not a mistake to read a hint of resistance into the band's repertoire.

"The song selection includes songs that were playing in the States, and very much expressed the countercultural sentiments of political resistance in this country at that time," Hollander says. "Bear in mind that these bands were all engaged in a show band contest in 1971 and 1972, and the winners of the that contest would then be able to tour Europe, and would also record an LP in the Armed Forces Network studios in Frankfurt.

"So this was a very viable way to avoid active duty in Southeast Asia."

Hollander says it isn't clear what the Army planned to do with these recordings, especially since so few copies of them have surfaced — just three dozen in East of Underground's case. It's also a mystery what happened to the bands — apart from Lewis Hitt, none of the members have come forward.

"I've done my own searches on Google and so forth, but I cannot find anything," Hitt says. "I'm just amazed that [the band's] three singers didn't have hit records after they left the Army. They were so talented, I just assumed they would have a contract with the first studio they walked into."

The liner notes of East of Underground: Hell Below conclude with a sort of benediction, lifted wholesale from the U.S. Army Field Manual:

Because of the unique ability of music to communicate, bands will serve in different capacities of publicity and recruiting, and in the support of civil affairs. Most of all, Army bands will strive to honor General George Washington's observation, "Nothing is more agreeable and ornamental than good music."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Time now for music, and today, army music to be precise. And not trumpets and drums and John Philip Sousa stuff, but rather, well, take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER")

EAST OF UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. Feed is getting stronger. Your music getting better, too, yeah, yeah.

RAZ: This is a band called East of Underground. The members were all enlisted men in the Army stationed in Germany in the late 1960s and early '70s. East of Underground was one of dozens of bands formed by soldiers stationed overseas, and Army brass actively encouraged them. In the early '70s in Germany, the Army held a competition, a kind of battle of the bands, and the winner would be sent to tour across Europe and record an album.

Well, for decades, those recordings were thought to have been lost. That is, until a collector stumbled upon the album by East of Underground at a Kansas City thrift store. Several other records by other Army bands from the time have now also been found and re-mastered in a new compilation called "East of Underground: Hell Below."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) I want to take you higher.

RAZ: David Hollander produced the compilation, and he joins me now from KRPS in Marfa, Texas. David, welcome to the program.

DAVID HOLLANDER: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: What an incredible music? And I can't wait to talk to you about it. But first, I was so surprised to read in the liner notes - and I covered the Pentagon, I didn't know this - that the U.S. Army alone currently spends an estimated $200 million a year on music. It's the largest single employer of musicians in the United States. Who could've figured that?

HOLLANDER: You know, I was shocked when I found that out myself, but it kind of makes sense. The Army has always - actually, all the branches of the armed services have always included music as part of their mission. It's there to boost morale. It's there to provide entertainment and comfort for soldiers. It's there to sort of represent what the U.S. is musically, culturally, to the rest of the world.

RAZ: A lot of people would assume that military music would be marching bands, but that's not the case. I mean, there are men and women in uniform who perform contemporary music, rock, R&B, rap and so on.

HOLLANDER: Absolutely. And in the case of these bands, what caught my interest was that the song selection really sort of reflected the attitudes that the general population have in America about the conflict in Vietnam and the sort of politically charged era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMILING FACES SOMETIMES")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend. Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within.

RAZ: David, I want to bring in one of the guys who played in that band, East of Underground. His name is Lewis Hitt. He was the lead guitarist. And he's with us from WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Lewis Hitt, welcome.

LEWIS HITT: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

RAZ: It's great to have you here. You were - Lewis, you were stationed in Augsburg, Germany, in 1971, I understand. How did you end up in this band? How did you end up even getting into something like this?

HITT: Well, I initially was stationed in Korea. I was able to get in the band there. And the first thing I did when I got to Germany was to find special services, which happened to be right next to my barracks. And I went in and met the singers and the other players and we got together and played, and it just kind of all kind of meshed together, hand in the glove almost.

RAZ: Let's listen to a track from the record. This one's called "Hell Below."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELL BELOW")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Sisters, brothers and the whities, blacks, and the crackers, police and their backers. They're all political actors.

RAZ: Sisters, brothers, the whities, blacks and the crackers, police and their backers. David Hollander, these are some pretty controversial lyrics for an Army band. Do you sense a hint of resistance in what they were choosing to sing and play?

HOLLANDER: I do. The song selection includes songs that, you know, we're playing in the States and very much expressed the countercultural sentiment of political resistance in this country at that time. Bear in mind that these bands were all engaged in a show band contest in 1971 and 1972. And the winners of that contest would be able to tour Europe and then would also record an LP in the armed forces network studios in Frankfurt. So this was a very viable way to avoid active duty in Southeast Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELL BELOW")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Don't worry, worry, worry, worry. But they don't know that there can be no show and if there's hell below. We're all going to go.

RAZ: I'm speaking with David Hollander, the producer of a new compilation of rock and funk music produced by American soldiers during the Vietnam War era. It's called East of Underground. I'm also speaking with Lewis Hitt. He was a guitarist in the band East of Underground.

Lewis, I'm looking at a photograph from the liner notes in the CD and some pretty shaggy haircuts. I mean, you've got mop tops and afros. And I mean, were there different rules for the guys in these bands? Didn't they have to, like, shave their hair and keep it short?

HITT: Well, we all pretty much were pretty close to Army standards. And we might have gotten away with it a little bit. The one that got away with murder, though, was Austin Webb. He had an afro, literally. And he would pack it down and put it under a hat, and I'm sure he left the Army with it under his hat. During the contest, there was a general that came through and was kind of checking it out. And he went up to Hal(ph), who was our special services director, and asked him about Austin's hair and Hal explained that that was a wig.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HITT: The general was happy. He was satisfied, you know, oh, that's just a wig. And he let it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: David, the Army paid to record these bands. The band members didn't know that the Army was pressing these records. What was the Army going to do with them?

HOLLANDER: You know, it's not really clear because in the case of East of Underground, only maybe three dozen copies of the record have surfaced. The best guess that we've had is that it was given out at recruitment centers.

RAZ: Lewis, there were seven members of the band East of Underground. Do you know what happened to any of those guys?

HITT: You know, I've done my own searches on Google and so forth, but I cannot find anything out. I'm just amazed that those three singers didn't have hit records after they left the Army because they were so talented. I just assumed they would just, you know, have a contract the first studio they walked into. But, no, I know nothing about any of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAVA GIRL")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Java girl, oh, your love I need. I need. The best of the world. Java girl, oh, your love I find. I find. The best of the world.

RAZ: If you got in touch with these guys, could you envision a reunion tour?

HITT: Wow. That'd be great. I mean, I would love to do it. But, yeah, that would be fantastic.

RAZ: David Hollander is the producer of the record compilation "East of Underground," a re-release of some of the bands that recorded while stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. Lewis Hitt was a guitarist in the band East of Underground. You can listen to a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Gentlemen, thank you very, very much.

HOLLANDER: Thank you.

HITT: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAVA GIRL")

UNDERGROUND: (Singing) It's a java. It's a java. It's a java. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.