According to multinational conglomerate and secret rock critic General Motors, Tide “is a sound like no other, an original, somewhere between jazz and rock.” Or so they had it at the outset of Fences and Gates, a short film showcasing Tide’s technical virtuosity. Sponsored by GM, the film also touted the virtues of capitalism to just the sort of rebellious 1970s youths who might consider some of those risky “alternative” economic models. Because, according to the film, “Tide is also very much a business.”
Tide, both the business and the band, formed in 1968 in Lawrence, Kansas, when three members of Upside Dawne decided to chart a riskier direction as a power trio playing original material. Those three members—drummer Steve Hall, bassist Paul Miller, and guitarist, pianist, and vocalist Jim Stringer—found an improvisational sound that borrowed from progressive rock, renegade country, and electric jazz, and toured it wildly across the Midwest.
“The band was really at its best live,” said Stringer. “We’d get a crowd going pretty good. Particularly for the time, where most people were interested in sitting cross-legged on the floor and dropping acid.” When Tide’s original bid to capture their stage sound with a live recording was interrupted by one of Kansas’s famous tornadoes, they decided to head for shelter deep underground.
At Cavern, they cut a proper studio album, Almost Live. Released in 1971 by Richard Petrovits’ Lawrence-based Mouth Music, the album justified two pressings and saw national distribution despite lacking any budget for promotion or tour support. Considered a rarity now, Almost Live saw 2,500 copies in its day and even wound up on the racks at K-Mart—sporting surreal cover art drawn by Morningstar’s Scott Donaldson. “It turned out later, he told me he had done acid every day for six years. He started out in the morning, he just dropped acid, that’s all he did,” said Stringer. “That cover is so bizarre. I look at it now, it’s this little guy, this little dwarf playing a fiddle with big shoes on and a puddle of water and a little fetus in a jar and stuff.”
Braving the tornadoes, Stringer brought a little piece of the Cavern back up to Lawrence with him. His time in the mines prompted him to set up his own four-track studio, in which Tide began work on their never-to-be-released second album. “That experience at Cavern launched my whole career as an engineer and producer,” Stringer said.
Later versions of the band featured an expanded, jazzier lineup as various musicians joined the core trio: Tim Smith, on sax, flute, harmonica, and guitar; Bill Lynch on guitar and vocals; and Greg Mackender on vibraphone. A strong concert draw and a cult following across the Midwest couldn’t hold back the current: The business logic of capitalism meant that Tide’s experimental nature would never flow with the mainstream, as various members fell deep into debt and road-weary misery. “Sometimes,” Stringer said, “I remember getting into rest stops and just thinking, ‘I’m just going to walk away from here. I’m just going to walk off and nobody’s going to know.’” Even a corporate endorsement wasn’t enough. Approached by General Motors in 1974 to make Fences and Gates, Stringer nabbed the opportunity, paid off his creditors, and got out while he could.