Despite releasing only one LP, the United States of America was among the most revolutionary bands of the late '60s -- grounded equally in psychedelia and the avant-garde, their music eschewed guitars in favor of strings, keyboards, and haunting electronics, predating the ambient pop of the modern era by several decades. The United States of America was led by composer and keyboardist Joseph Byrd, a Kentucky native raised in Tucson, AZ; there he appeared with a series of rock and country bands while attending high school, subsequently playing vibes in a jazz outfit as a student at the University of Arizona. Despite winning a fellowship to study music at Stanford, Byrd instead relocated to New York, intrigued by the avant-garde experiments emerging from the city's downtown music scene; there he began earning international renown for his own compositions, at the same time working as a conductor, arranger, associate producer, and assistant to critic Virgil Thomson.
Byrd eventually returned to the west coast, accepting an assistant teaching position at UCLA and moving into a beachfront commune populated by a group of grad students, artists, and Indian musicians. He soon began studying acoustics, psychology, and Indian music, but quickly turned back to experimental composition, leaving the university in the summer of 1967 to write music full-time and produce "happenings." To perform his new songs -- material inspired in no small part by the psychedelic sounds produced during the Summer of Love -- Byrd recruited a group of UCLA students (vocalist Dorothy Moskowitz, bassist Rand Forbes, electric violinist Gordon Marron, and drummer Craig Woodson) to form the United States of America; the group's lone self-titled LP, produced by David Rubinson, was recorded for CBS in 1968, its unique ambience due largely to their pioneering use of the ring modulator, a primitive synthesizer later popularized by the Krautrock sound.
The subject of critical acclaim, the album spent over two months in the lower regions of the Billboard charts; still, the United States of America disbanded soon after, with Byrd resurfacing in 1969 with The American Metaphysical Circus, credited to Joe Byrd & the Field Hippies, a group of a dozen musicians including vocalists Susan de Lange, Victoria Bond, and Christie Thompson. A critical and commercial failure, the LP was his last until 1975, at which time he released Yankee Transcendoodle, a collection of synthesizer pieces. Three years later, Byrd also produced Ry Cooder's Jazz album, and in 1980 he issued another synthesizer record, Christmas Yet to Come. He additionally wrote for films, television, and advertising jingles. Fellow United States of America alum Dorothy Moskowitz, meanwhile, later resurfaced in Country Joe McDonald's All-Star Band, with the remaining members of the group essentially disappearing from the contemporary music scene. ~ Jason Ankeny