Automatic Man: 'Automatic Man' (1976)

Artist: Automatic Man

Album: Automatic Man

Place: KARM, 3935 Western Ave.

Price: 99 cents

The career of guitarist Pat Thrall illustrates, among other things, that the music business is foremost a business. Popular music has always been paradoxical in its embrace of both anti-establishment zeal and the apparently natural human longing to be rich and famous. Indeed, many of the towering figures of rock 'n' roll history embody this paradox. Here, I'm thinking of Bob Dylan shilling for Victoria's Secret (go YouTube it; it's disturbing) and doing corporate gigs with his son in Silicon Valley; the ostensibly nearly socialist Joe Strummer selling "London Calling" to Jaguar so the company could sell more really expensive cars (Strummer's hagiographers wink and pretend the sale happened after their hero's death, but it didn't); and putative gay rights champion Elton John performing at Rush Limbaugh's wedding for $1 million. Principles and political change are important, but so is money.

Pat Thrall is not a household name, but if you listen to classic rock radio you've probably heard him. He played on (and co-wrote) "Snortin' Whiskey" with the Pat Travers Band, wrote a couple of songs for his band Hughes-Thrall (one of which made it into heavy rotation on MTV back when they took the "M" seriously), and played guitar for geezer-rock stalwarts Asia and Meat Loaf. Left to his own devices, Pat Thrall would probably make music that sounds like that found on Automatic Man from 1976. The alien on the cover gave me no idea of what to expect. The album is a strange mix of funk, progressive rock, space music, and jazz fusion.

This album, like so many others I find languishing in dusty bins, is a testament to how good Americans' taste in music can sometimes be; its single, the funky and quirky and hooky "My Pearl," cracked the Billboard Hot 100. The song is powered by a sweet keyboard riff followed by a Hendrix-like guitar riff. It's very catchy, and its goofy lyrics ("What you mean to me/Gotta whole lot of oooh, oooh, oooh") actually elevate a song that in lesser hands might have been stupid or pretentious. There are a few progressive rock bugaboos here—including the titles "Atlantis Rising-Fanfare" and "ITD (Interstellar Tracking Devices)"; some soaring, swirling, designed-to-be grandiose keyboards on several tracks; and what sounds like a flute on "Atlantis Rising-Fanfare"—but things never get too out of hand. The touch remains light, the vocals are unpretentious and heartfelt and soulful, and the lyrics remain firmly focused on ladies rather than wizards, courts, trips to other planets, or drug-induced states of altered consciousness.

Since his heyday as a musician, Thrall has carved out a career in the music business that has little to do with the eclectic, syncretic Automatic Man. Indeed, the funky and fabulous guitarist has become a sought-after engineer, and over the past decade has worked with a who's who of music stars that people with good taste in music (like Pat Thrall) tend to despise, including Clay Aiken, Big Time Rush, Justin Bieber, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, New Kids on the Block, Katy Perry, and Ashley Tisdale. The music business is a business. And if someone has to engineer albums by the likes of Big Time Rush and Katy Perry, I'm glad it's Pat Thrall. He deserves to make a good living.