The Music Machine was an American rock band formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1966. Fronted by chief songwriter and lead vocalist Sean Bonniwell, the band cultivated a characteristically dark and rebellious image, reflected in their untamed musical approach.

They often utilised distorted guitar lines and hallucinogenic organ parts, punctuated by Bonniwell’s distinctively throaty vocals. Although they briefly attained national chart success with two singles, the Music Machine is now considered by many critics to be one of the groundbreaking acts of the 1960s. Their style is recognised as a pioneering force in proto-punk, and over time, they began to employ more complex lyrical and instrumental arrangements that went beyond the typical garage band format.

Initially, in 1965, the band formed as a folk rock trio known as the Raggamuffins before expanding to a quintet and rechristening themselves the Music Machine. They were known for their distinctive style, often dressing in all-black attire. In 1966, the Music Machine signed with Original Sound and released their first single, “Talk Talk,” which reached the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. Their debut album, (Turn On) The Music Machine, and the moderate hit “The People in Me” followed. The band’s original lineup fragmented in late 1967 after managerial and financial disputes. Bonniwell reassembled the group under the name The Bonniwell Music Machine. In 1968, a second album, The Bonniwell Music Machine, appeared, but the group disbanded in early 1969.

The nucleus of The Music Machine was formed when Sean Bonniwell (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) joined a jam session with Keith Olsen (bass guitar) and Ron Edgar (drums), both of whom he met in the folk music circuit. Bonniwell, an experienced “folky,” had previously been a vocalist with The Wayfarers, a traditional folk combo that enjoyed regional success with three album releases. During his time with The Wayfarers, Bonniwell began writing material that would later be used by The Music Machine. Frustrated by the traditionalism of folk music, Bonniwell sought a harder, more cutting-edge sound, which he eventually found in rock.

Olsen had previously played in Gale Garnett’s backing band, and Edgar was a member of the bohemian folk quintet The GoldeBriars, which featured future Sunshine Pop progenitor Curt Boettcher. Edgar contributed to The GoldeBriars’ third album, which was slated for release on Epic Records, but the group disbanded before its release.

In 1965, the trio formed a folk rock group called The Raggamuffins and began performing in Los Angeles. Their unorthodox style marked a departure from their traditional roots. The Raggamuffins recorded four songs, which remained unreleased until the 2000 album, Ignition, showcasing their transitional phase before becoming The Music Machine. Bonniwell and Olsen experimented with musical textures and implemented strict rehearsal regimens in Bonniwell’s garage. They created a homemade fuzz-tone switch and tuned their instruments down to D-flat, giving their sound a bottom-heavy, ominous quality. The group adopted a noir style, with all-black attire, dyed-black hair, and a trademark single leather glove, which influenced later punk acts.

In early 1966, auditions expanded the group, adding Mark Landon (lead guitar) and Doug Rhodes (organ). Rhodes had been a session musician for The Association. With the revamped lineup, Bonniwell renamed the band The Music Machine. He explained the name change, noting that their performances featured nonstop music segues, creating a continuous, wall-to-wall sound. The band quickly established a solid reputation in Los Angeles clubs. With Bonniwell as the creative force, The Music Machine developed a blend of gritty 60s punk and psychedelia, performing Bonniwell’s original material and some cover songs. The band’s sound was characterised by Bonniwell’s authoritative vocals, Landon’s wiry guitar, Olsen’s reverberant bass, and Edgar’s cymbal-punctuated drumming.

Record producer Brian Ross discovered The Music Machine at Hollywood Legion Lanes and signed them to a recording contract with Original Sound. On July 30, 1966, the band recorded the Bonniwell originals “Talk Talk” and “Come on In” at RCA Studios in Los Angeles. “Talk Talk,” composed a year prior, featured two-note fuzz guitar riffs and precise drumming. The band needed only three takes to complete the two songs. Convinced of “Talk Talk”‘s potential, the band released it as their debut single on September 10, 1966. The song rose to number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, number 21 on Cashbox, and number 18 on Record World. Its short length made it a staple on Top 40 radio and underground FM stations. “Talk Talk” was a radical single for mainstream radio in 1966, with lyrics and arrangements influencing bands like The Doors and Iron Butterfly.

Following the single’s release, The Music Machine embarked on a three-month U.S. tour with The Beach Boys, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and Clyde McPhatter. Despite a poor response in the American South, their unified image boosted their national recognition. The band made numerous appearances on television shows such as Where the Action Is, American Bandstand, and Shindig!.

Returning from their tour, The Music Machine recorded their debut album, (Turn On) The Music Machine. Bonniwell’s original material had to compete with cover versions chosen by the record label to boost sales. The band’s slow, moody, fuzz-laden arrangement of “Hey Joe” resembled Jimi Hendrix’s later version. Despite the challenges, (Turn On) The Music Machine reached number 75 on the Billboard 200. On January 21, 1967, “The People in Me” was released as their second single but stalled at number 66 nationally due to management conflicts with radio executives.

Following the release of (Turn On) The Music Machine, the band embarked on another U.S. tour, although they missed the opportunity to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival. During breaks from their hectic schedule, they demoed new songs at RCA Studios in New York City and Cosimo Matassa’s facility in New Orleans before finalising them in Los Angeles. This period produced their third single, “Double Yellow Line,” released in April 1967, which reached number 111 on the Billboard charts. The subsequent single, “Eagle Never Hunts the Fly,” failed to chart but was praised for its innovative sound.

In May 1967, the original lineup recorded together for the last time, completing tracks like “Astrologically Incompatible,” “Talk Me Down,” and “The Day Today.” A significant issue leading to the band’s breakup was that producer Brian Ross owned the “Music Machine” name, which resulted in minimal royalties for the band members. Consequently, Olsen, Edgar, and Rhodes left to join The Millennium, a sunshine pop group formed by Boettcher and Olsen, and later worked on Sagittarius’s album Present Tense.

Bonniwell, undeterred by these changes, negotiated a new contract with Warner Bros. Records, seeking greater independence. Original Sound attempted to capitalise on Hendrix’s success with “Hey Joe” by releasing it as a single in 1968. During this transitional phase, Bonniwell also released the rare single “Nothing Is Too Good for My Car” under the name The Friendly Torpedoes.

With new session musicians—Ed Jones on bass, Harry Garfield on organ, Alan Wisdom on lead guitar, and Jerry Harris on drums—Bonniwell formed The Bonniwell Music Machine. They recorded a second album at United Western Recorders in March 1967. The album, painstakingly produced by Bonniwell, featured a mix of styles, reflecting his exploratory approach. Released on February 10, 1968, The Bonniwell Music Machine did not achieve commercial success, leading to the band’s fragmentation in July 1968.

Disbandment and Aftermath

The final iteration of The Bonniwell Music Machine saw several lineup changes. They released two more singles on Warner Bros. with little success before their last single, “Advice and Consent,” was released on Bell Records in March 1969. Disillusioned by the music industry and frustrated by competing against imitation Music Machine groups, Bonniwell relinquished the band’s name and signed with Capitol Records as a solo artist. Under the name T.S. Bonniwell, he released the album Close, which featured poetic lyrics and orchestral arrangements. After its release, Bonniwell entered his “westernised guru era,” studying eastern mysticism and embracing meditation and vegetarianism.