Israeli singer Shmulik Kraus wrote a classic of psychedelic rock while sitting in a jail cell in the 1970s. His album deserves another listen.
In March of 1971, an otherwise mild-mannered 36-year-old songwriter named Shmulik Kraus, holding a Kalashnikov in one hand and a sniper’s rifle in the other, faced down a group of Israeli soldiers who had come to kick him off his land. Standing in front of the small building he had built on a plot near Nebi Samwil, just north of Jerusalem, Kraus argued that he had inherited the acre from his father, who had passed away a year earlier, but the authorities argued that the deed he held—dating back to the Ottoman Empire—wasn’t valid. After a heated argument, Kraus laid down his weapons, was taken into custody, and placed in a jail cell to await trial. There, he composed what became the defining album of his psychedelic rock career, Medinat Yisrael Neged Krauz, Shmuel, or The State of Israel vs. Shmuel Krauz, which was released 33 years later on CD in the United States by Mio Records, under the title A Criminal Record.
Israel’s small but tight-knit psychedelic rock scene was, like its counterparts across the globe, heavy into hash, jamming, and recording albums that never made a noticeable impact beyond local borders. But while bands and solo acts of the era—like Turkey’s Erkin Koray, Brazil’s Os Mutantes, and a number of bands from Cambodia—have lately become favorites among plugged-in collectors and indie rock royalty, the shelves are bare of recordings by Israeli psychedelic rock artists, and probably for good reason. Kraus, who in 1967 composed and produced the first Israeli pop-rock record with the Jerusalem-based band The High Windows, is one of the few Israelis whose work actually seems worth preserving.
Completely devoid of any digital trickery, A Criminal Record is very much a product of its time, with a laid-back vibe and ramshackle sound created by a makeshift band. It is also one of the most unique and fantastic undiscovered albums from the most fertile era of rock ‘n’ roll. According to the liner notes to the 1977 full-length EP released by Hataklit (prior to that, the songs had been released as individual singles), the bulk of the album was created while Kraus sat alone in his cell, humming melodies to himself. He then asked one of the guards who was familiar with his work if he could borrow a guitar. The guard agreed, but set a condition: If Kraus cut his long hippie hair, the guard would find him an instrument. Desperate to make music, Kraus agreed and then worked furiously for the next 24 hours writing music. A few days later Kraus was granted a 48-hour leave from his jail cell, and he went straight to a recording studio, where he had gathered some of Israel’s best rock and jazz musicians, including Haim Romano, the guitarist from the country’s first psychedelic band, The Churchills. The recording was completed in two hours.
Kraus was released from prison on bail a week later, and the album, containing six freewheeling psych-folk tunes seemingly influenced by Bob Dylan and American garage rock, was released in May of 1971 to very little public notice. The one exception was the song “Shishi Ham,” or “Hot Friday,” which became a massive success after the Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor took the tune and rewrote all of the lyrics, changing the title to “Tov Li Lashir,” or “I Like to Sing.” Manor’s version would go on to take first prize at the Hebrew Song Festival of 1972, where it was performed by the group Hatov, Hara, Vehana’ara (The Good, the Bad, and the Girl). The rest of the album—including a version of the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son,” with lyrics reworked by Kraus, and the fuzzed out garage-rock sounding “Who Are We?”—faded into obscurity, but has a weird innocence and earnestness to it that may be even more delightful to listen to now than it was then.
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