1967 was a big year for dad.
After graduating from high school in June, he entered the University of California in September as a Sociology major. On his eighteenth birthday he signed up for the military draft, and in a few weeks learned that he was classified 1-A-O, a conscientious objector still available for military service, but only in non-combatant roles. While he wouldn’t have to carry a gun and shoot strangers, he could still wind up in Nam as a medic or a gofer, and no one was safe in a place with no defined battle lines.
In his first year in college, dad used the student deferment option to avoid the draft entirely, but chose not to exercise it the following year once he saw it for what it was: a way for privileged white boys to avoid a trip to Saigon. Some of his buddies from the neighborhood opted for another strategy and enlisted right after high school based on “common knowledge” that enlisted men had a better shot of avoiding dangerous assignments, while draftees were automatically shipped to the front lines. The strategy turned out to be more myth than reality, though, and the following summer dad lost one of his closest friends who had volunteered for the Navy.
I still ache with the memory of seeing my dad break down when he found his friend’s name on The Wall.
My grandparents had been shaving dad’s earnings in the construction business for years, taking a cut from his pay and putting it aside for his college expenses. Back then, college was incredibly cheap—UC Berkeley was tuition-free for California residents (though they did charge modest “registration fees”)—so paying for college was the least of dad’s worries. His original plan was to continue living at home and take the AC Transit bus to Berkeley and back every day, but that plan went up in the sweet smoke that hung in the air during the Summer of Love.
That’s when he met my mother.
The late-teen version of my mother had a paralyzing effect on any man who came within thirty feet of her. A natural beauty with a great bod framed in long, dark hair would have intimidated any wannabe suitor, but when you add a French accent to the mix—well, those American boys never had a chance.
At the time she met my father, maman had only been in the States for a little over a month and though fluent in English, she was still building her American slang vocabulary. One of the earliest slang words she learned is one she still uses frequently today, especially when the subject of Donald Trump comes up in conversation: jackass. While it comes out of her mouth sounding more like zhag-ass, you can definitely hear the bite.
“Except for your father, they were all a bunch of jackasses,” she responded to my query about her initial contacts with young American males. Strengthened by his experience listening to Lesley Gore, naturally curious about people and so enthralled by her presence that any self-consciousness was obliterated, my father became the first American male to engage my mother in intelligent conversation, giving him a decisive advantage over his drooling Neanderthal competitors. For her part, she was equally attracted to him, his relatively long dirty-blonde hair and the green Irish eyes he passed on to his daughter.
Dad knew within fifteen minutes of first contact that this was the love of his life; maman wasn’t ready to make that leap quite yet. Throwing caution to the fierce winds of San Francisco, he decided then and there that he would find a place of his own away from the parental nest so he could entertain, engage and hopefully bang this hot French piece of ass. After checking out apartments in that charming relic of yesteryear known as the “want-ads,” he realized that to afford a place in Berkeley he’d have to work full-time—an impossibility given his full class schedule. Undaunted by the challenge, dad took two part-time jobs and connected with a few East Bay contractors for pick-up work on the weekends. Even with those income streams, he couldn’t afford a place by himself, so he had to find a roommate. He and his new best friend—a geography major from Placerville—found a crummy but serviceable two-bedroom place on the Berkeley-Oakland border off Telegraph Avenue where at least he and his intended could have a private room all to themselves.
Despite all the change going on in his world and the world around him, Dad remained passionate about music—probably even more so, given his new sweetheart’s musical training, talent and knowledge. Now that he was responsible for his own survival, he had to cut back on some of his impulse buys and select music that gave him the biggest bang for his buck. As it turned out, the music industry was more than happy to accommodate a young man on a budget, and had just the thing to help him stretch his meager dollars: the album.
The Beatles had done more to legitimatize the album than any other recording artists due to their overwhelming influence on both music and culture. Rubber Soul had awakened artists, moguls and the listening public to the idea that albums could be more than just collections of songs, and though Rubber Soul is only faintly thematic, it has a certain unity that separates it from The Beatles’ earlier LP’s. They took the concept to an entirely new level with Revolver, and despite Frank Zappa’s protestations to the contrary, turned albums into art with the release of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. In addition to its groundbreaking music, Sgt. Pepper was a Beatle consumer’s dream, with lyrics printed on the back, a controversial cover that spurred endless conversations about its significance and a set of cutouts you could pin to your shirt or blouse to show your allegiance to the rebranded band. Albums became all the rage in 1967, and several classics hit the shelves that year in addition to The Beatles’ masterpiece: Surrealistic Pillow, The Doors, Between the Buttons, The Who Sell Out, Alice’s Restaurant, Pleasures of the Harbor, Disraeli Gears and Axis: Bold as Love.
There was also Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, but only hardcore trekkies would consider that ripoff a classic.
The increased quality of albums made them a less risky purchase and a much better deal for the consumer. You could buy an album with ten to twelve tracks back then for $2.99 or $3.99. 45’s cost 99 cents. Even using the higher price level and the 10-track format, the per-unit price of an album worked out to 40 cents while a 45 with only two songs came out to 45 cents. It’s hard for a generation like mine who grew up believing coins were the stupidest thing ever invented to appreciate that nickels and dimes used to have real value. In 1967 you could still get a Snickers bar for a nickel, pay a dime for a cup of coffee (fuck you, Starbucks) and buy a value pack of twelve rubbers for only 89 cents! Lyndon Johnson was working hard to make sure that something called inflation would turn those charming prices into nostalgia pieces, but a dime still made a difference to my dad back then (fuck you, George Wallace). My dad shifted his investment strategy to albums about mid-year, and as noted in the series intro, the number of 45’s he bought would dwindle precipitously by year’s end.
As for the singles released in 1967, the pop charts reveal a boom-or-bust climate. Some of the releases that year are always part of the conversation when people talk about the greatest singles of all-time. “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” would win my vote, but “Light My Fire,” “Purple Haze” and Aretha’s version of “Respect” all had a tremendous impact on popular music. Still, when you scan the charts, you get the definite impression that 45’s were not “where it’s at” (or where it was at, whatever it was). Compared to 1966, there was a surprising lack of innovative music appearing on 45’s, and less adventurous acts like The Monkees, The Buckinghams, Nancy & Frank Sinatra, The Young Rascals, The Association and Lulu often found their way to the top.
Even with the lower overall quality, I found several great 45’s and some delightfully quirky releases that somehow burst through the haze of marijuana and incense smoke to earn a spot on AM rotations. I’ve already covered the iconic songs noted above as well as several albums from 1967, but we still have several classic hits to cover and a few that had greater influence than their highest chart position might lead you to believe.
One aspect of the music of 1967 I found very curious was the almost complete disappearance of the protest song from the popular charts. The number of American casualties in the Vietnam War almost doubled that year and the annual summer race riots were particularly destructive, so there was plenty of material to work with. But though there were many anti-war demonstrations and be-ins throughout the year, there were no new popular anti-war anthems to lift protester spirits: protest songs had gone underground. And despite their proximity to the 12th Street Riot that killed forty-three and turned Detroit into a virtual war zone, Motown maintained a stubborn silence on the race issue. In dad’s collection of singles from 1967, I only found two 45’s that dealt with social reality.
My read of 1967 is that it was a year when Americans were sick and tired of reality and turned to music to escape it all. This was the year of love, love, love, and those seeking escape from the horror of the nightly news grasped onto the incredibly naive notion that if everyone could just love one another, the world would change overnight. At the seminal Human Be-In that took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, Timothy Leary spoke for millions of Americans with his advice to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Recreational use of drugs was on the rise, new gurus arrived to educate spiritually atrophied Westerners in Eastern paths to higher consciousness, and nearly everyone wanted to disengage from the ugliness.
Dad attended that be-in and even at the ripe old age of seventeen figured out that Leary was just a hippified version of P. T. Barnum. Still, he did turn on and he did explore yoga and meditation. He drew the line at dropping out, however. “Even with all the fractures in American society at that time, I still believed that the only sure path to change was through the democratic process. I didn’t see how we could defeat the system, but if we could get inside the system, we might be able to change a few things. When I entered college, there was still hope—we still had Bobby Kennedy and MLK on our side in the fight against Johnson and Reagan. I think what you read as people being naive was actually people looking for better days ahead and feeling that there were a lot of good reasons for hope.”
That does sound pretty naive to me, but then again, I’ve spent my life in an era of middle class decline where the system is controlled by the One Percent. America in the 60’s had a large and thriving middle class, living up to its reputation as the land of opportunity. Perhaps there was something to this hope thing after all.
“Pretty Ballerina,” The Left Banke, January 1967: We begin what would turn out to be a pretty wild year in music with a wintry, melancholy piece about the unattainable woman. That unattainable woman was none other than Renée Fladen-Kamm, subject of “Walk Away Renee” and either the object of pianist Michael Brown’s late adolescent fantasies or his personal muse. Since Renée was hooked up with the bass player, both seem likely motivations.
I’ve always wondered why the muse has to be asexual. Personally, I find sex pretty fucking inspiring!
I’m a bit more attached to this song than “Walk Away Renee” because it was one of the first pop songs I learned on the piano. It’s a great song for a beginner-level piano student just starting to build some confidence and aching to play a complete composition in any genre instead of another goddamned Czerny étude. While the chord progression is not particularly challenging, Michael Brown’s composition allows for plenty of free-flow melodic play on the fringes of the key (encouraged by the introduction of an augmented fifth at the ends of the verse lines). The string arrangement is exceptional, highlighted by a key change that makes the instrumental passage all the more intriguing.
I also prefer “Pretty Ballerina” because its lyrics are far more intelligible than those of “Walk Away Renee.” Instead of mumbling his way through the melody, Steve Martin Caro sings the lyrics with sexless purity, suitable for an ode to the idealized woman. If you placed “Pretty Ballerina” on one end of a spectrum, you’d find Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” on the other end.
And that’s where you’ll find me most of the time.
“I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tommy James & The Shondells, February 1967: Lester Bangs called this song “the bubblegum apotheosis,” but I heartily disagree. I have a bipolar opinion of Tommy James. I find both “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” rather dull and somewhat dated, even for the 60’s, but I love his work on the more melodic pieces like “Crimson and Clover” and this song. Written by Ritchie Cordell, who later produced Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘n Roll album, the lyrics capture the essence of those sweet and semi-secretive teenage relationships as well as any other song you’d care to mention:
That’s what they say when we’re together
And watch how you play
They don’t understand and so we’re
Runnin’ just as fast as we can
Holdin’ on to one another’s hand
Tryin’ to get away into the night
And then you put your arms around me
And we tumble to the ground
And then you say
I think we’re alone now
There doesn’t seem to be anyone around
Teenagers never have the privacy they need, and that was as true with me and my ultra-understanding parents as it is for any teenager today. Teenagers live in a strange space: they’re unsure of themselves and the world around them, and they know that their parents still look at them as the little kid they knew and loved, not the blossoming adult with a shape-shifting identity. The only people who can truly understand the teenage experience are other teenagers, but because parents are forever sticking their noses into teenage business, worrying about pregnancy or praying for grandchildren, teenagers often feel the need to hide that part of their lives from the old farts. While I talked openly and honestly with my mother and sought out her perspective after a relationship had played itself out, I avoided talking with her about relationships while they were still in progress. That was my world, my life, and I needed to have it all to myself.
“I Think We’re Alone Now,” with that vivid imagery of narrow escape and tumbling to the ground in each other’s arms, describes the essence of life as a teenager. Adults may dismiss it as “bubblegum” stuff, but to a teenager, it’s real, immediate and intensely important. Teenagers are human beings who have genuine human experiences. They don’t deserve the dismissive, belittling attitude that is a defining feature of many insecure, controlling adults. “I Think We’re Alone Now” is a beautiful song, and Tommy James’ voice expresses all the complex, wavering emotions that teenagers feel almost every day of their lives.
“Sit Down, I Think I Love You,” Mojo Men, February 1967: Now THIS is bubblegum. “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” is a listening experience that will dissolve your tooth enamel unless you brush after every spin. The arrangement of this Stephen Stills composition is best described as “hippie circus music,” and the only reason I selected this 45 was to get another opportunity to hear Jan Errico’s voice. While the male lead sounds wimpy, the former lead singer of The Vejtables comes through strong and clear when she enters the mix at the start of the bridge.
I have to confess that when I was a cute little blonde girl composed of nothing but sweetness and light, I adored this song. I also liked circuses. Today I wouldn’t be caught dead at a circus and as far as sweetness and light is concerned, let’s just say that “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” isn’t the kind of song that goes well with leather lingerie and riding crops.
“Epistle to Dippy,” Donovan, February 1967: Wow! Jimmy Page! The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra! No fucking colors! No fucking seagulls! Maybe Donovan has finally turned the corner!
The British were spared the experience of “Epistle to Dippy,” as the single was only released in the United States, where it made it all the way to #19 before thankfully fading into oblivion. According to Wikipedia, the song has a strong pacifist message, but I guess I’m not stoned enough to find it. Without a lyric sheet you can hardly make out the words due to Donovan’s patented method of syllabic torture, which by itself negates the argument that there is a strong message. In fact, I’m very suhhhhhhhhh . . . spicious about the assertion that there is a message at all, unless it’s contained in the opening line of the last verse: “rrrrree-bell ughents suh-sigh-utt-ay.” If he really wanted people to rebel against society, wouldn’t that have been the one line in this fucking song that he would have articulated clearly and with due emotion?
Sigh. I guess “Epistle to Dippy” is what you get when you see life through crystal speck-tickles. Now that I’ve covered it, I will skip across to the next song quite merrrrrrr-ily.
“Dead End Street,” Lou Rawls, March 1967: Damn, I love this man’s voice.
The label on the 45 is somewhat misleading, as it identifies two separate parts with two separate playing times: “Dead End Street Monologue” (1:27) and “Dead End Street” (2:10). I guess Capitol Records was still operating under the assumption that DJ’s were still averse to spinning anything longer than three minutes, so the label served to give DJ’s the go-ahead to skip the monologue and go straight to the “real song.”
Wow. That’s like cutting out the first two acts of Hamlet. The play would open with an obviously mentally disturbed young man wandering around Elsinore doing bizarre things that make no sense at all. You’d have no insight as to what caused him to behave so strangely, and would probably take an immediate and lasting dislike to this throughly unsavory fellow who goes about ordering a young woman to a nunnery and impulsively stabbing an old man hiding behind a tapestry. “I didn’t spend forty bucks to see a play about a psychotic loser,” you’d grumble as you stormed out of the theatre.
The same is true of “Dead End Street.” Cut out the monologue and a white person in the 60’s would hear a black man bitching about how unfair life is. “Glad I voted for Governor Reagan,” the white man would say, and switch the dial. Listen to the monologue and you get a completely different picture: a vivid description of life in the ghetto for a boy stuck on a street that was dead-end in more ways than one:
I was born in a city the called the ‘Windy City’
And they call it the ‘Windy City’ because of the ‘Hawk’.
The Hawk, the almighty Hawk, Mr. Wind
Takes care of plenty o’ business around winter time
The place that I lived in was on a street
That happened to be one of the dead-end streets
Where there was nothing to block the wind, the elements
Nothing to buffer them for me, to keep ‘em from knocking my pad down, Jim
I mean, really socking it to me
When the boiler would bust and the heat was gone, Jim,
I had to get fully dressed before I could go the bed
‘Course I couldn’t put on my goulashes cause they had buckles on them
And my folks didn’t play that
They said, “Don’t you tear up my bedclothes with them goulashes on.”
Playing the role to perfection, Lou then goes on to describe how he split as soon as he could get a job and save enough money—a key point to demonstrate to the largely white listening audience that this kid didn’t steal their tax dollars by going on public assistance. Now you understand Lou when he sings about the limited options available to a black boy caught in the cycle of poverty:
They say this is a big rich town, but I live in the poorest part
I know I’m on a dead-end street in a city without a heart
I learned to fight before I was six, the only way I could get along
When you’re raised on a dead-end street you gotta be tough and strong
Now all the guys I know getting in trouble that’s how it’s always been
When the odds are all against you how can you win?
Lou dominates the “real song” with his rich, commanding voice, weaving tiny bits of scat into the drama-packed narrative to keep the groove going. His anguish and passion about the condition of black children in America comes through loud and clear, but equally strong is the message, “Hey, all I want are the same things you white people have that I don’t”—to get a good job, to learn a trade, to make a life for himself. While the non-revolutionary stance of “Dead End Street” may have frustrated a few militants, the message doesn’t differ much from points two, four and five in The Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program: full employment, housing fit for human beings and a real education.
Lou Rawls won a Grammy for his performance, and though I loathe the Grammies and all they stand for, his vocal on “Dead End Street” deserves every award it can get.
“The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” The Grateful Dead, March 1967: The Dead’s first single was literally an afterthought: they’d finished recording their first album but Warner didn’t think any of the tracks qualified for release as a single. So they headed over to Coast Recorders, then located on Folsom Street in The City, and came up with a single based on the name of their fan club. “Golden Road” is a precious bit of you-are-there history, describing the burgeoning hippie scene in the Haight before tourists and the skeptical national press showed up and disrupted the vibes:
See that girl, barefootin’ along,
Whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on.
There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,
She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street.
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Well everybody’s dancin’ in a ring around the sun
Nobody’s finished, we ain’t even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find our where it’s at.
The feel of the song is loose and fun, reflecting the carefree spirit of those who chose to drop out of the absurd world sponsored by the white-shirted Establishment and tune in to music, dance and good times. The group vocals are outstanding, and while I think they may have overdone it a bit with the overdubs, the energy of the song never flags. I love the dissonant ending, a small but treasured bit of defiance against convention. If you want to get an idea of what the Haight felt like in its prime, “Golden Road” is a good place to start . . . and that’s my father talking, since I wouldn’t arrive on the planet for another fourteen years.
“Friday on My Mind,” The Easybeats, March 1967: The Easybeats were Australia’s answer to The Beatles, generating a form of teenage girl hysteria referred to in the Aussie press as “easyfever.” While the sheilas went apeshit for The Easybeats, the band might as well have lived on the moon as far as the rest of the world was concerned. I listened to several of their early tracks that made it big down under and what I heard was a rougher, even more unpolished version of garage rock. When they tried to sell their wares to the big boys in the U. K., their material was dismissed as unsuitable and unsophisticated—a reaction similar to that of the American arm of CBS when they first heard The Clash. Things finally got moving when The Easybeats were paired with Shel Talmy, notorious for his production work with The Kinks and The Who. After listening to their repertoire of originals, he chose “Friday on My Mind” as their best shot at a breakthrough.
Well, duh! The wow factor of this song is off the charts in terms of both musical sophistication and unbridled energy. The simple, insistent staccato guitar in E minor establishes an edgy tension for Stevie Wright’s vocal, which complements the tension with its sullen frustration, reflecting the drag we all feel in the early part of the work week. When the second guitar joins and delivers that amazing scale-defying run, you feel like the tension is about to boil over, but Stevie holds back for a couple of lines (including my favorite, “Even my old man looks . . . good”) before rising in the scale to the clinching line, “I’ve got Friday on my mind!” A rapid series of chords provides the bridge to the chorus in joyful A major, an increasingly delightful passage heightened by call-and-response vocals that ends in harmonic unity.
“Friday on My Mind” was their breakthrough hit, but unfortunately The Easybeats fell apart pretty quickly after earning international success. Damn! They really had something here, and had they continued writing in that vein, they could have created some terribly exciting material. Damn!
“Here Comes My Baby,” The Tremeloes, April 1967: I was so disappointed to learn that Cat Stevens wrote this song. I would like to send Cat Stevens and Graham Nash to whatever level of hell Dante reserved for those whose mere presence causes fatal diabetic shock.
Though it’s still hard to believe that Decca chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes over The Four Moptops, the group did have a relatively successful career in the U. K. “Here Comes My Baby” was the first single after Brian Poole’s departure, and proved to be a breakthrough hit that gave them greater access to international markets. Personally, I can’t stand their even more successful follow-up, “Silence Is Golden,” and was thrilled not to find it in dad’s collection. Though the lyrics of “Here Comes My Baby” tell the story of a humiliating breakup, the manufactured party background helps lighten the atmosphere, and The Tremeloes’ infectious energy makes parting a sweeter sorrow.
“I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman,” Whistling Jack Smith, April 1967: File this under “Confidential: Confessions of a Whistling Whore.”
I wholly and completely reject the characterization of this song as a novelty song! People have been whistling for centuries—how then is whistling a novelty? I refuse to accept the cheapened definition of novelty as something popular for a short period of time and insist that this song has legs, people! Legs!
This song makes me incredibly happy! The arrangement is superb, opening with a brief gazebo band passage calling up nostalgic moments on the village green. A gentle arpeggiated guitar appears, and then we hear the sound of a jaunty air delivered through the puckered lips of a human being. Ah, the sweet sound of whistling! A bass and tambourine join in to strengthen the whistler’s fortitude, because as incredible as this may seem, some people think whistling is a silly thing to do. Harrumph! Now facing a half-step key change, the whistler receives additional support from an organist, a surprisingly energetic drummer and a good helping of reverb that helps the whistler maintain center stage. What? Another half step rise! What’s this? A WHISTLING DUET? OH MY GOD! YES! YES! BRING IT ON HOME BABY! AAAAAHHHH! NO! DON’T STOP! WHAT? YOU’VE GOT MORE? AAH! YES! YES! COME ON BABY, GET IT ALL OUT! YES! FUCK YES! AHHHHHH!
I don’t give a rat’s ass that Whistling Jack Smith was a figment of producer imagination. The man knew how make a woman take it, like it and beg for more. Whistling Jack Smith will always have a place in my heart as my virtual male blow-up doll.
One more time!
“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” The Bee Gees, May 1967: Although two Australian bands breaking into the American pop charts in the same year doth not an invasion make, The Bee Gees confirmed the existence of the mysterious subcontinent for geographically-challenged Americans and helped establish Australia as a viable source for new acts. While their disco phase appeals to me about as much as a guy who hasn’t showered in a week, The Bee Gees did some good stuff during the early years of international awareness. Bee Gees 1st (actually their third album but the first outside ANZAC) is a pretty solid album with surprising diversity. “New York Mining Disaster 1941” was the first of three A-sides from that album (“Holiday” and “To Love Somebody” are the other two) and is my favorite of the three. Composed by Barry and Robin Gibb, this dramatic monologue of a miner trapped in a cave-in is beautifully sung and brilliantly arranged. Contradicting the classic rules of song structure that demand you build to a peak, “New York Mining Disaster 1941” works in reverse: the lyrics become more spare and are sung more slowly as the song proceeds and the miner’s oxygen supply becomes depleted. The string support is equally spare, adding to the drama, and the carefully-placed harmonies supplied by Robin and Barry enhance the feeling of despair. Beatle-like? Sure, but virtually any English-sounding group that sang harmonies could have been nailed on that charge.
Look: if you can’t tell the difference between The Beatles and The Bee Gees, you’re a fucking idiot.
“Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” Janis Ian, May 1967: One of the very few protest songs to chart this year, “Society’s Child” was a remarkable song in many ways. And the shit Janis Ian had to go through after recording it was even more remarkable.
Janis was something of a musical prodigy who was trained on several instruments, composed her first song at the age of twelve and completed writing “Society’s Child” at fourteen. At the time she attended school in a neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey where whites were a distinct minority, enabling her to see racism at work on both sides of the divide. The song was released three times before Leonard Bernstein gave it a helpful push and brought Janis into the limelight at the tender age of 16. Even with Bernstein’s imprimatur, many radio stations banned “Society’s Child” because it dealt with a seriously taboo issue: interracial romance.
Janis received hate mail and death threats. Bill Cosby spread the word that she was a lesbian in an attempt to have her blacklisted (she came out as bisexual much later). Her career stalled for years until “At Seventeen” was released to widespread acclaim in 1975.
“Society’s Child” is still a beautiful and moving song today. The arrangement is tastefully dramatic, having been produced by Shadow Morton, who worked wonders with The Shangri-Las. The unusual key change from Cm to Am in the chorus adds depth to the girl’s feelings of despair and disconnection. Janis’ voice combines power, beauty and a genuine sense of anguish.
Some may complain about the copout at the end when she gives into her parents and ends the relationship with her black boyfriend, but I get the sense that the social reality of the time demanded such a copout. Though the people of the 60s’ thought they were living in an age of progress, most of that progress took place in the fields of consumer goods, military technology and the space race. When it came to the right to love whomever you choose, the 60’s were a pretty grim period.
“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” Scott McKenzie, May 1967: Another 20-minute effort on the part of John Phillips, this song was primarily written as an advertisement for the Monterey International Pop Festival. Phillips was one of the festival’s organizers, as was producer Lou Adler. Though Phillips didn’t make a dime on the festival because the proceeds went to charity and the artists played for free (except for Ravi “Higher Consciousness” Shankar), there is such a thing as a loss leader, a marketing strategy where you lowball a product or service to stimulate sales of other product lines.
If you really think Phillips and Adler did this out of the goodness their hearts, you belong in 1967.
You also have to question why Phillips and Adler would promote a festival taking place in Monterey with a song encouraging people to travel to San Francisco. That’s a two-and-a-half hour drive if you’re lucky, and my research could find no evidence that Trans-Love Airways ever flew to Monterey. Or to San Francisco. Or anywhere outside of Donovan’s head.
But hey, if you’ve only got twenty minutes to put together an ad, you might end up with a few embarrassing typos.
When I hear Scott McKenzie’s wholesome-white-guy voice, I imagine him donned in the culturally-aware-oh-so-hip Nehru jacket and beads, standing in a field of wildflowers free of stinging insects and migrating animal shit, the sun shining brightly but not bright enough to damage Scott’s tender white skin, directing his naturally-benevolent gaze upwards at the clear blue sky free of rain clouds, passing jets and air pollution, projecting his Karo-brand corn syrup voice over emerald hills and dales where thousands of wannabe hippies have gathered to achieve peace, oneness, a great high and oodles of groovy, out-of-sight and blessedly free love.
The only problem with that picture is there is no way in hell a guy can get it up listening to Scott McKenzie.
While his voice creeps me out in the same way I get creeped out when I see pictures of Jesus in spotless white robes and squeaky-clean, obviously conditioned hair, I don’t blame Scott McKenzie for this turkey. He had a job to do and he did it with good faith and to the best of his ability. No, the fault here lies entirely with John Phillips, who (very much like Paul Simon) constantly inflated his importance by positioning himself as a “spokesperson for the generation.” This is the verse that makes me want to retch:
All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion, people in motion
If I could go back in time and grab John Phillips by his scruffy collar for a quick interview, here’s what that conversation might look like from my end:
“Hey, John, about this verse that starts with “all across the nation” and “a strange vibration”—what kind of vibes are you feeling from the people in the ghettos? How about the American Heartland? Think all those racists in Mississippi and Alabama feel those vibes? And you’re saying the whole generation is feeling those vibes, heh? What about the guys who signed up for the ROTC? What about the girls who still want to grow up and raise families? What about the farm boys? What about the Young Republicans? What about the young people living in poverty? And hey, what’s this “new explanation” all about? Got any plans? Can you share any details? What are you trying to achieve? And those people in motion—why are they in motion? Where are they going? What are they going to do when they get there? What’s that, John? I just don’t get it—is that what you said? Oh, I see—I had to be there. Well, John, I’m right here, right now. Show me the vibrations. Show me the new explanation. Show me how the whole generation is united in motion and tell me where they’re moving to and why. What’s that, John? I’ll see someday? I’ll see? Okay, I’ll see you and raise you a nickel that you didn’t know what the fuck you were thinking when you wrote this song. Is that right, John? Hey! Hey! Don’t you turn your back on me! Stop! Okay, I warned you!”
Wow! He . . . vanished! That nose twitch I picked up from Samantha really works!
“Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison, July 1967: I chose this song from the pile even though I’m sick to death of it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song played so frequently in public. I’ve heard it while strolling through the casinos in Vegas, on elevators in several different countries and when flipping through the stations on my car radio (in the days when I owned a car). I’ve heard it on television commercials, in between innings at baseball games and most recently on a boom box while strolling through the streets of Nice.
I think I remember liking it at one time, but I think I would have liked it better had Van stuck with the original title: “Brown-Skinned Girl.” Van says the title change was an accident, a story that has as much credibility as Lyndon Johnson did in 1967. He changed it because it would have been banned or censored on radio stations because of the interracial implications.
As it was, the song was partially censored anyway. The “making love in the green grass” was overdubbed with a repetition of the “laughin’ and a-runnin'” phrase. Still, I find the title change troubling—far more troubling than The Stones caving into Ed Sullivan and singing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”
I guess a 16-year old Jersey girl had more guts than a young man from the mean streets of Belfast.
“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, August 1967: You can’t compare “Ode to Billie Joe” to any other song that came out in 1967, and it must have had a profound grounding effect on music listeners engulfed in a period of experimentation and often over-the-top wackiness. Instead of having to sit through another song celebrating the muddled values and questionable virtues of Hippie Utopia, here was a song about real people using real language to tell a real story. All over the U. S. A., people previously engaged in passionate debate about the war, moral decline, the credibility gap and the generational divide tuned out of the daily news cycle for a few blessed weeks and engaged in passionate debate about what the hell Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend threw off the Talahatchee Bridge.
There is nothing like a great story told well to bring people together. Bobbie Gentry not only wrote a great story, but she told it exceptionally well. Just like it was when your mom or dead read your favorite book to you for the umpteenth time, she has your undivided attention as you hang on every word, every nuance, every slight shift in the mood of the narrative.
I completely agree with Bobbie Gentry that the issue of what the couple tossed into the river isn’t really that important. What is important is the conversation between family members and how they process the meaning of Billie Joe’s suicide. Papa takes the classic American Puritan view that Billy Joe got what he deserved and that his death is a trivial event compared to the lower forty he’s got to plow. The line “Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense—pass the biscuits, please” is the ultimate negation of Billie Joe’s life. Mama maintains her native emotional intelligence (“and mama said it was a shame about Billie Joe anyhow”), but moves on from Billie Joe relatively quickly (“That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today”) then shifts to motherly concern over her daughter’s possible involvement in Billie Joe’s death. Brother has the typical reaction of finding death hard to believe and tries to do battle with the finality of death by recalling childhood memories. The girl who narrates the story is almost invisible until the last verse, refusing to partake in either the family dinner (note that dinner is the midday meal on the farm) or the family conversation. She mourns Billie Joe silently by throwing flowers into the muddy river. The visual of the young girl tossing petals from a bridge takes on an even greater sense of mourning by its appearance at the very end of the song—after we learn that the family that we met at dinner no longer exists. Daddy’s dead and gone, Brother’s moved up to Tupelo with his new bride and Mama has withdrawn into her grief. “Ode to Billie Joe” could be interpreted as a microcosm of the splintering of American society or the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family . . . but like the mysterious something flung into the water, that is a secondary interpretation based on “future hindsight.”
In addition to Bobbie Gentry’s first-rate storytelling skills, Jimmie Haskell’s cinematic string arrangement is a wonder in itself, a perfectly-synced mood track characterized by stark simplicity. Every note and every silent passage has a purpose; nothing is wasted; nothing is superfluous. The passage towards the end of the song where the strings build on held notes to the fluttering finale is a marvelous mixture of tension and lingering uncertainty.
Bobby Gentry’s original composition ran for eleven verses, and I’m glad Capitol Records made the decision to pare it down to fit on a 45. The final version you hear today is a paragon of poetic economy, an impactful aesthetic experience that encourages self-reflection.
“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Jackie Wilson, August 1967″: They called him “Mr. Entertainment” for his electric performance style, but many of Jackie Wilson’s records fall short of capturing the man in his element. “Higher and Higher” comes closest in my book, a single-take display of Jackie Wilson in the zone. While I love the sheer enthusiasm in his voice, it’s the little touches he throws into the mix—a bit of falsetto support here, a fill-in word there—that really show how much he was feeling it. Jackie was also very lucky that The Funk Brothers decided to moonlight on this session, ensuring a tight groove and superb fills. Last but not least, kudos to The Andantes for their edge-of-female-falsetto background vocals that add immediate and lasting significance to the phrase “higher and higher.”
“The Letter,” The Box Tops, August 1967: Poor Alex Chilton. This song made him an international star at the ripe old age of sixteen and was the first in a string of hits for The Box Tops, including the solid follow-up, “Cry Like a Baby” and the rancid future commercial jingle “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March.” All very well and good, but the truth was The Box Tops were seriously over-managed and the kids in the band were getting screwed by anyone in the music business who could worm his way onto the gravy train. Alex was a kid with a shitload of potential, but management just saw him as a lead singer who could bring home the bacon to the all the little piggies crawling in the dirt.
Alex would go on to demonstrate his formidable talents after leaving The Box Tops, both with Big Star and in various solo efforts. The tragedy is he never found the right mentor who could challenge him, guide him and help him get the most of out his natural gifts. While he remains a hero in the indie scene, it pisses me off that he died in relative obscurity, almost completely penniless and unable to afford medical insurance.
Back to “The Letter”—Alex’s vocal carries this song, overcoming the superfluous horns and strings that come close to ruining it. You can hardly hear the other Box Tops, so really, it’s Alex Chilton versus the sappy arrangement, and Alex wins in a landslide.
“We Love You/”Dandelion,” The Rolling Stones, September 1967: The Stones enter the revolutionary fray with a furious, unrelenting assault on . . . direct object pronouns?
We love you
We love you
And we hope that you will love we tooWe love they
We love they
And we want you to love they too
Way to hit the capitalist oppressors where they least expect it, guys! We will not be objectified!
The universal outrage of grammarians may have doomed “We Love You” from the get-go, as it never climbed above #50 on the Hot 100. Promo dollars were then shifted to the b-side, and “Dandelion” climbed to a respectable #14. “Dandelion” is the better song, which in comparison to “We Love You” isn’t saying a whole hell of a lot. It’s one of two decent pieces from this dark period in Stones history; the other is “She’s a Rainbow” from that disastrous experiment known as Their Satanic Majesties Request.
The Stones had no fucking business getting into psychedelia in the first place, as their sweet spot was and will forever be groove-based, R&B-influenced rock with a bite. They also made it more difficult for themselves during this period by falling in love with complex vocal harmonies, ignoring the inconvenient fact that their voices weren’t particularly suited for such work. To their credit, they may have been subliminally aware of their harmonic deficiencies, and for “Dandelion” they brought in Lennon and McCartney for emergency assistance.
No one was saved, not even “Dandelion.”
“Soul Man,” Sam and Dave, September 1967: This was a great year for soul, and I’m a sucker for soul songs where men sing about what studs they are. They’re a source of endless motivation because they remind me of how many men I have to subdue before I croak!
I was brought up on a side street
I learned how to love before I could eat
I was educated from good stock
When I start lovin’ I just can’t stop
I could respond, “Hold on, I’m coming” but that can be taken in so many ways.
Isaac Hayes wrote “Soul Man” as a pride song after seeing the word “soul” plastered on the windows of small businesses during the Detroit riots. The superficial intent of the signs was to discourage any black looters in the area from taking out their understandable frustrations on a black-owned business, but Isaac grasped the deeper meaning of the word “soul”—an affirmation of identity merging body and spirit.
The Soul Man in the song does more than fuck: he’s also there to help a woman out and give her hope. That thread served to challenge the stereotype of black men as unbreakable sex machines who value women only for their honey pots.
Personally, I don’t need the help or the hope, but I can always use a great fuck.
Sam and Dave trade verses and harmonize on the chorus, and make a fabulous duo, especially when paired with Booker T & the MG’s and horns from The Mar-Keys. I’m also a sucker for strong bass lines and “Soul Man” rumbles like a rhythmic earthquake. And I just love the way they back off the double time of the verses and ease into the basic groove in the chorus—it’s like a great fuck sequence when the guy follows five minutes of high-speed penetration with long, deep, measured thrusts that seriously test the elasticity of the vaginal wall.
No, I don’t hear sex in every piece of music, but I do hear it when it’s there.
“Incense and Peppermint,” Strawberry Alarm Clock, September 1967: I have to compliment the British on their musical taste here. While “Incense and Peppermint” made it to #1 in the USA, it failed to appear on the UK Singles Chart. Blimey!
The song has a weird history of disputed authorship and a strange decision concerning the lead singer. In a narrative piece on Songfacts, keyboard player Mark Weitz recalled that each of the band members tried to sing the lead vocal but none of them sounded right. A 16-year old kid who happened to be visiting the studio that day gave it a shot and got the job. And no, he did not join the band, even after “Incense and Peppermint” made it to the top.
I hope The Strawberry Alarm Clock were world-class lip-syncers.
An alternative version of the story is that the band members didn’t want to sing it because they couldn’t stand the lyrics provided by co-writer John Carter. I hope that’s the real version, because I don’t know how anyone with an ounce of self-respect would want to have anything to do with these ludicrous phrases:
Good sense, innocence, cripplin’ mankind
Dead kings, many things I can’t define
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints, the color of time
I have no idea what that means and I don’t think another acid trip would help. Later Carter borrows a piece of Timothy Leary’s tune in mantra then urges listeners to “throw your pride to one side, it’s the least you can do.” Whatever you say, man.
It’s really too bad that the Strawberry Alarm Clock a.) adopted a very silly name and b.) will forever be associated with a very brief moment in music history. They were actually one of the better L. A. bands and featured some solid musicians like Weitz and Ed King, who would move on to contribute his fretboard talents to Lynyrd Skynrd.
Oh well, “little to win, nothing to lose,” as they say.
“Get Together,” The Youngbloods, October 1967: Damn. Another barf bag song.
Jesse Colin Young approached the lead vocal with the same syrupy style of Scott McKenzie in a vain attempt to imbue meaninglessness with meaning and nothingness with feeling. The Kingston Trio had recorded this song as far back as 1964, but apparently no one was ready to love their brother just yet. “Get Together” was We Five’s follow-up to “You Were on My Mind,” and while it made the Top 40, there weren’t enough hippies around yet to turn into an anthem. Even when The Youngbloods released “Get Together” shortly after The Summer of Love, the song seemed finally destined for much-deserved oblivion after peaking at #62 in the Billboard Hot 100. It took two more years and a PSA by the National Conference of Christian and Jews to draw attention to The Youngblood’s version, and they finally made the Top 10 in 1969.
I really wish religious people would mind their own goddamned business.
This thoroughly repulsive song was written by one Chet Powers, aka Dino Valenti, who bounced around music scenes in Boston, New York and L. A. before winding up in the Bay Area just as the counterculture was rearing its hairy head. Eventually he became the lead singer and songwriter for Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that enjoyed modest success in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Chet-Dino was also busted several times for marijuana and amphetamine possession and actually had to spend some time in Folsom Prison for those seemingly minor offenses. To pay his legal expenses, he sold the publishing rights to “Get Together,” so in the end the song did provide some value in helping out a guy in a tough spot.
“Get Together” is repulsive on so many levels I hardly know where to start, but let’s get “smile on your BROTHER” out of the way first. Thanks for excluding more than half of the human race, Chet! Like many hippie anthems, the song hints at greater meaning but never provides anything the least bit meaningful. Lines guilty of this heinous crime include: “You can make the mountains ring/Or make the angels cry,” “We are but a moment’s sunlight/Fading in the grass,” and the entire last verse:
If you hear the song I sing
You will understand (listen!)
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It’s there at your command
WHERE’S THE FUCKING KEY? Is it under the doormat or in the fake rock hidden in the garden? If I smile on my BROTHER, is that like a secret password I have to use so I can get the fucking key? Hey, I’m all ears here—where is that goddamn key? Where’s the door? Where are we, Chet?
The weirdest verse is the second, where Chet turns into a half-assed theologian . . . I guess.
Some may come and some may go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moment’s sunlight
Fading in the grass
Wait, whoa, what? “Some may come and some may go, we shall surely pass . . . ” are you talking about birth and death? Don’t we ALL come and go? Are you hinting that there’s a secret path to immortality? Aha! That fucking key must have something to do with it! Okay, Chet, stay with me, stay with me, I think I’m starting to get it . . . oops, Chet, you lost me again with “When the one that left us here/Returns for us at last.” I hope you’re not talking about God or Jesus or anybody like that, Chet, because now you’re going to exclude another five or so billion people who don’t subscribe to Christianity . . . are you talking about The Aliens? Okay, I can dig that but . . . there’s only one alien? That must be one powerful motherfucker if he or SHE is going to manage the transportation arrangements for seven billion inhabitants!
You look sad, Chet. You didn’t really think this one through, didja, buddy? Don’t worry about it, Chet . . . you weren’t the only one.
“Boogaloo Down Broadway,” The Fantastic Johnny C, October 1967: I’ll take the lyrics of “Boogaloo Down Broadway” over “Get Together” anytime:
Baby, oh baby,
Boogaloo down Broadway,
Baby, oh baby
Boogaloo down Broadway.
Come on Sally, come on Sue,
All day long we’re gonna Boogaloo.
But when the sweat begins to fill the air,
We’re gonna funky Broadway everywhere.
Songwriter Jesse James wasn’t trying to make a meaningful generational statement. He wasn’t tying to raise anyone’s consciousness. He was just trying to get people in the mood to dance, and the lyrics are perfectly suited to that purpose.
Of course, he needed a great singer who shared that purpose, and he found one in an ex-gospel singer named Johnny Corley. He was re-christened The Fantastic Johnny C after Jesse James played the demo for some friends, who all described it as “fantastic.” And it is! “Boogaloo Down Broadway” is an absolute gas in large part because Johnny C was seriously feeling it. That little stop time section that opens the song and reappears between the verses is a precious moment of sensual delight and a model of effective simplicity: a nice little bluesy guitar riff and one powerful whack on the snare drum. The juxtaposition of a rock-solid groove with stop-time intervals make for a fabulous dance song that gives dancers the chance to show their stuff. I tried it at home with my partner and sure enough, every time that little riff appeared I felt an overwhelming urge to give her one powerful whack on her ass in time with the snare hit. And I did! And it was . . . fantastic!
“Homburg,” Procol Harum, October 1967: Stylistically similar to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” with piano more prominent than the organ, “Homburg” proved to be a worthy follow-up to one of the most cherished songs of the period. I love the structure of the chorus and the way the chords ascend in full-step intervals up to the major third while avoiding the obvious choice of the major fifth as the return to the root. I like the music far better than Keith Reid’s lyrics, which are unusually awkward (“for the floor she found descended”) and weaken the apparent theme of man trapped within his socially-defined perceptions. Oddly enough, it was paired with “Good Captain Clack,” a music hall bit from their first album about the consequences of a half-assed erection.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Gladys Knight & The Pips, October 1967: Apparently Americans of this era had an unusually strong appetite for grapevines. Only a year after the Gladys Knight & The Pips version made it to #2, Marvin Gaye took his version to the top, where it stayed for three weeks. Not to be outdone, Creedence Clearwater Revival produced an eleven-minute version of the song for their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory. Their single version peaked at #46.
As it is with penises, length is irrelevant. Creedence’s version is a colossal bore from one of the most overrated bands in history, so Fogerty can put his long one back in his pants and get the hell off the stage. The only versions that matter came from Gladys and Marvin.
There’s really no sense in comparing the two, as Marvin Gaye put such an unusual spin on the original that it feels like they’re almost two different songs. Gladys’ take is more “You think you’re going to fuck with me, dude?” while Marvin’s reflects the deeper emotional consequences of rejection. Gladys deals with the obvious; Marvin plays with the subtext. There’s no question that the Gladys Knight & The Pips version is the better dance number, but Marvin Gaye wasn’t trying to get your feet moving—he targeted your heart and soul. I love both versions, and my preference for one or the other depends entirely on my mood: if I want to shake it, I go with Gladys; if I want a full emotional experience, Marvin’s my man.
“Itchycoo Park,” The Small Faces, November 1967: I can’t tell you what a wonderful feeling it is to end this series with a song featuring musicians who knew how to play.
I will never understand why Small Faces and The Pretty Things never made serious inroads with the American public. They were two of the best British bands of the era, compiling wonderful catalogues of diverse and exciting material. While I realize that they didn’t get much in the way of management or record company support in the States, I’m amazed that even the limited airplay they received didn’t start a groundswell of demand. The Pretty Things never charted in the United States, and Small Faces only hit the Top 20 once, with “Itchycoo Park.”
I’ve noticed that most reviews of this song focus on the engineering wizardry that created those cool psychedelic sounds and ignore the underlying truth that cool sounds do not make a memorable single. The reason you hear “Itchycoo Park” today is because fundamentally it’s a great song performed exceptionally well. The chord sequence in the verse is a bit unusual with its move from C#m to G in the context of the key of A major—when I first tried to learn this song the DOES NOT COMPUTE alarm went off in my brain and I must have tried twenty other chords before surrendering. Steve Marriott gets to show why he was one of the best lead singers of the era with a performance that ranges from soft restraint to all-out power. Ronnie Lane’s bass fills are simply marvelous, Kenney Jones is solid on the kit and Ian McLagan does superior and surprisingly subtle work on the keyboards. As with “Ode to Billie Joe,” the song featured a controversial unanswered question: “Where is Itchycoo Park?”
Personally, I couldn’t care less, but if you’re really interested, go look it up on Songfacts. To me, it’s another distraction from the delightful musical experience of the song itself.
After Dad helped me with the editing for this series (I always have my parents review the conversations I transcribe for accuracy), we had a nice little chat about our father-daughter shared experience. I should note that we started working on the series early in June 2016, and our progress was interrupted by two life-changing events that occurred back-to-back: my grandfather’s passing and the terrorist attack on the Prom. The emotional drain of grandfather’s death and the aura of tension in Nice left us with no energy to move forward, and due to the heavy travel demands of my relatively new job, I had very little free time. When we finally felt motivated to finish the job, we both went nuts, manically throwing ourselves into the music as if the music was our path to salvation. I then used all that dreary alone time in hotel rooms to complete the drafts, and I had dad over one night for dinner so we could reflect on the experience.
“You’re done, huh?” he said to me after I poured him some coffee.
I laughed. “I don’t know how to answer that. I’ve already quit twice and came back. Let’s just say I’m happy that I’m done with everything I wanted to see in the book and now I can send it to Robert for final editing—I hope. I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be writing something every week, but I reserve the right to drop in from the ether every now and then if a piece of music really motivates me.”
“Maybe you’ll get motivated to do the Wilburys someday.”
“Ain’t gonna happen, dad!” We both laughed. When the laughter died out, dad shifted to a more reflective mood.
“This has been a great experience for me in many ways. I know you’ll understand this more than most in your generation because of the way you were raised on music, but not entirely because you grew up in a different world than I did. For me, music wasn’t just a way to pass the time, it was the center of my life—it shaped my experience, colored my memories, opened my eyes and ears to worlds different from mine. Music is sacred to me and to many in my generation because we didn’t have the thousands of avenues of entertainment your generation has. When I was growing up, every song took on at least some importance, because we didn’t have all that many to listen to. That’s probably why you get so much shit from people my age—when you try to explode cherished myths or mess with special memories, you’re going to get some blowback.
“A lot of memories came back as we listened to all these songs—some good, some not so good. What surprised me was how rich memories are when they’re tied to music. There were songs we played that literally took me back to my teens—I could feel the fog on my face and the slickness on the sidewalk as I walked to school, or smell the perfume on the girl I danced with at the mixer, or trivial stuff like when I was in study hall one day trying to remember the words to ‘Paint It, Black’ because my band wanted to try it out. I wrote them down in my spiral notebook in pencil—and when I hear that song I picture my words on the page, all covered with that pink residue from the eraser. I remember a kid who thought learning ‘Paint It, Black’ was a thousand times more important than acing the civics test.
“So this has been a great experience and I think the music helped us both through a pretty tough time. And I want you to know how much I appreciate you sharing it all with me—the good, the bad, the ugly. I love you, Sunshine.”
“Aww, dad, I love you, too.”
We hugged a long time, and shed a few tears of love and relief.
Then we took care of the dishes, stepped outside into the warm cocoon of a summer night in Nice and walked hand-in-hand down the hill to meet up with maman and my partner for late night cocktails, conversation and a little night music.
America was coming apart at the seams.
Naive white people who thought that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would take care of the “Negro problem” and usher in a new day of racial harmony were in for a rude surprise. Beginning with Watts in the summer of 1965, riots became an annual summer ritual in America’s heavily segregated big cities in the North. The riots and the new militancy from black activists sparked a white backlash most regrettably symbolized by the election of Ronald Reagan as Governor of California. Depending on your point of view, drugs were becoming either a major social problem or a path to higher consciousness. Protests against the Vietnam War were becoming more frequent, although a comfortable majority of Americans still voiced support for the president’s war effort in the national polls. Though Americans patriotically supported Johnson as commander-in-chief, many had become disillusioned with his Great Society mega-program, which was already well on its way to becoming a big, bloated bureaucratic mess. The 1960’s planted the seeds of division that would come to characterize American politics for decades, a division that would widen even further and become almost impossible to seal after Jimmy Carter declared he was a born-again Christian and legitimatized the role of religion in politics.
By contrast, the situation in the music world couldn’t have been better. Some artists attempted to expand the boundaries of popular music while others with more modest goals attempted to breathe new life into traditional forms. The scene was a cauldron of creative energy, alive with new possibilities and fresh sounds. The Beatles led the revolution in sound with the “Paperback Writer/Rain” single and followed it up with the more emphatic statement of artistic expansion we hear in Revolver. Simultaneously, there was an explosion in what today we call “garage rock” that often served as a counterbalance to over-the-top experimentation (though some garage bands integrated basic rock patterns with peculiar, “psychedelic” sounds). Motown was still cranking out classics that regularly topped the charts, but when you look at the songs that hit #1 in 1966, the diversity of styles is breathtaking—everything from Petula Clark’s “My Love” to The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” to “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band. It was as if the listening audience was a mood to say “YES!” to everything that came their way, and that openness to new music would encourage artists to dig deeper in the search for new sounds.
With everything going down the proverbial shithole, one has to wonder why 1966 was such a great year for music. Psychological compensation? The manifestation of megatons of pent-up creative energy released by the British Invasion? The coming-of-age of the garage bands whose number had mushroomed after The Beatles had demonstrated that music could send teenage girls into fits of ecstasy? The arrival of a new generation of college students in search of a newer world? Mind-expanding drugs? The Women’s Movement? The Miranda decision? The Andy Griffith Show? Hell, I don’t know!
All I know is that 1966 was a fabulous year for music, Vulcans and The Baltimore Orioles.
“I Fought the Law,” Bobby Fuller Four, January 1966: You know, sometimes it’s really nice to hear a good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll song. No frills, no effects, none o’ your fancy studio tricks, just kick-ass, gee-tar driven rock ‘n’ roll. Strap that sucker on and get my mojo working, baby!
“I Fought the Law” will do that to a girl.
Bobby Fuller’s version of this Sonny Curtis composition is roughly similar to The Crickets’ original, but beyond the superficial echoes, there really is no comparison. On the Bobby Fuller version, the guitars are brighter and the rhythm much more intense. The Crickets’ version is a nice mid-tempo rockabilly number; Bobby Fuller’s take is not only more energetic but more genuine—he sounds like a guy who’s been running from the law. Even when they put his ass behind bars he finds it impossible to take it down a notch. He’s absolutely frantic when he sings about losing his girl, delivering the lines in the bridge as if the heavy price he has to pay for his crimes has just hit him square in his face. No poontang? No nookie? Get me the fuck out of this place!
And while I love The Clash and love their version of “I Fought the Law,” it still ain’t Bobby Fuller. Bobby Fuller was the real deal, folks, and if you listen to a random sample of tracks from the three El Paso Rock compilations, you’ll understand why his early death six months after “I Fought the Law” hit the charts was a tremendous loss for all of us.
“California Dreamin’,” The Mamas and the Papas, January 1966: Mama Cass died early, too. So it goes.
I’ve never been impressed with The Mamas and the Papas, but felt I had to do one of the three in dad’s booty. I chose this one because of Denny Doherty’s vocal in the second verse, where he gets one of the few chances he’d ever get to belt it out with a touch of grit in his voice. The song itself isn’t much more than the folk-rock contribution to The Great California Myth. The lyrics reflect the talent of a lyricist with terminal writer’s block, which pretty much describes everything John Phillips did. He hated the verse about the church but left it in because he couldn’t come up with anything else.
It’s nice to know that he worked hard at his craft.
As for the women singing in the background, one is very loud and the other is a lousy actress.
“These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Nancy Sinatra, January 1966: “Sing it like a sixteen-year-old girl who fucks truck drivers,” ordered Lee Hazlewood, the clearest set of instructions ever issued in a recording studio. Nancy was open to suggestions because after compiling what amounted to a mediocre recording career, she was in danger of being dropped by her father’s very own record company (ouch!). The song Hazlewood had written for her was both clever and daring; the cleverness apparent in the transformation of nouns and adjectives into verbs (samin’, truthin’); the derring-do in the radical idea that a woman could fight back. Because this was Nancy Sinatra, she had access to some of the best musicians in the business—the famed Wrecking Crew—and she also had a committed producer (Hazlewood again!) who embraced arranger Billy Strange’s two-bass concept and worked closely with the musicians to ensure they gave him what he wanted.
Sounds to me like Nancy had the recipe for success! In this case, though, what turned this song into a worldwide #1 had less to do with the lyrics, the arrangement, the musicians, the producer or even the singer—and a lot more to do with a very powerful bit of imagery.
A woman in boots.
I can find no record of Nancy Sinatra ever having embraced feminism, thank fucking God. Early 60’s feminism was as boring as its earlier manifestations, focusing on changing laws rather than habits, a strategy that occasionally resulted in a symbolic and completely meaningless victory for the cause. Exhibit #1: The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, when women made 59 cents for every dollar earned by a penis holder. In 2016, women make 79 cents for every dollar earned by those blessed with testicles. Fifty-three fucking years for a lousy 20 cents? You call that progress?
You don’t gain equality by passing laws or boring people to death with lectures about equal rights. You don’t gain equality by trying to out-man a man by showing you can do all the stupid things he does like joining the military or becoming a CEO. The battle between the hetero-sexes is not going to be won in the legislature or in the boardroom. Remember: the only measurable advantage males have over females is physical strength, a quality that requires no intelligence to operate, and is in fact easily neutralized.
You want to equalize the power differential and negate male brawn? Slip on a pair of boots. Ankle boots, knee-highs, thigh-highs, whatever. A woman in boots is the pleasurable version of the stun gun. Jaws drop. Penises rise. Most guys won’t even approach a woman in boots—they’re too intimidated, as they should be. For the few morons who view a woman in boots as a threat to their very identities, I recommend martial arts training. A swift, unexpected jolt to the balls not only neutralizes the invader but keeps other women safe for at least a few months if you do it with gusto.
Back to “Boots”—I would argue that because the song was written by a man makes the song even more meaningful. Women tend to be too nice about asserting themselves, so having a guy write what amounts to a fantasy of a woman treading over his body in a pair of boots is a crystal-clear request (if not a plea) for a more assertive approach on the part of the female.
And while the song communicates both literal and subliminal messages across quite nicely, the promotional video clearly demonstrates the power of the imagery. Sit back and watch a gaggle of gals in crotch-high outfits and black-leather boots as they prance around Nancy, dressed to kill in an all-black number that I simply must add to my collection, and you’ll get the point.
“19th Nervous Breakdown,” The Rolling Stones, February 1966: Jagger and Richards were writing some of the most insightful, relevant and socially-aware lyrics of any rock group at the time (along with The Kinks), a quality in Stones recordings that is often overlooked. Few were writing opening lines like “You’re the kind of person you meet at certain dismal, dull affairs,” and I would guess that an impressive percentage of Top 40 listeners in 1966 would have had to look up the word “dismal” in the Merriam-Webster. As in Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” the satire is directed at those pampered few who exist in an economic stratum far removed from the daily grind. The lyrics here argue that the indifference manifested by the uppers towards the lowers is a chosen indifference supported by class collusion.
You were still in school when you had that fool who really messed your mind.
And after that you turned your back on treating people kind.
On our first trip I tried so hard to rearrange your mind.
But after a while I realized you were disarranging mine.
It’s pretty heavy indoctrination when even an acid trip can’t make a dent in a person’s arrogance.
Keith Richard’s opening riff gives “19th Nervous Breakdown” a thrilling lift-off while Bill Wyman’s rumbling descending bass runs make the fade as exciting as the song proper. The Stones never let up for a second, and even the brief reprise of the modified opening riff ends with Charlie Watts pounding thunder.
“You’re My Soul and Inspiration,” The Righteous Brothers, March 1966: This song won the coin flip over “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The two songs are virtually identical, in both arrangement and lyrical content. Medley and Hatfield each get their turns at the mike, but despite the obvious differences in vocal range that would normally call for a call-and-response pattern, they simply take turns advancing the narrative thread. The “hero” of the story is a loser whose life will completely fall apart if his heart’s desire goes through with her plans to give him the old heave-ho. And you really think she’s going to change her mind because you tell her “if you go it will kill me?” I think she’ll say to herself, “Best decision I’ve ever made,” walk out to her car and leave your sorry ass in the dust.
Despite the obvious weaknesses in the story line, Medley and Hatfield both give bravo performances. I usually prefer the deeper voice of Bill Medley, but for some reason I really like Bobby Hatfield’s work on this piece.
“Kicks,” Paul Revere & The Raiders, March 1966: Paul Revere & The Raiders were one of the better American bands of the era. I only wish they hadn’t worn those silly colonial uniforms and wasted time and talent toadying to Dick Clark on Where the Action Is. Mark Lindsay was more-than-respectable lead vocalist and the rest of the band (when producer Terry Melcher actually allowed them to play on recordings), was pretty solid.
Apparently they took a lot of shit for recording “Kicks.” One of the salient features of the hippie movement was its dogmatism, and there were few more heinous sins than questioning the value of “mind-expanding” drugs. People who refused to indulge might get off with a hand-slap and be labeled a “straight,” but if you questioned the sacred value of drugs, stoners tagged you as a narc and banished you from the in-crowd. Taking a hit when the joint was passed your way was the loyalty oath of the hippie experience. When my mom and dad dropped out of the drug scene in 1970, they lost half their friends.
Eric Burdon turned down the opportunity to record this Mann-Weill number, foreshadowing his total conversion to the movement in the horrifically crappy singles “San Franciscan Nights” and “Monterey.” Given his rather meager offerings in 1966, he could have used a song as intensely exciting as “Kicks.” Give due credit to Terry Melcher for this one—his production is brilliant. From the English-influenced guitar licks to the thundering bass, “Kicks” was recorded with clear intention and confidence. The song moves with insistent energy anchored by strong bass support, and the simple flip from backbeat to downbeat in the chorus is a surprisingly emphatic bit of accentuation. Mark Lindsey’s vocal is one of his best, and the way he modulates his voice to accentuate different emotional peaks and valleys in the one-sided conversation is the work of a true professional.
“Secret Agent Man,” Johnny Rivers, March 1966: The Cold War wasn’t all bad—it gave us James Bond, Jim Phelps, John Steed, Emma Peel and Maxwell Smart! Shoe phones! Rocket belts! Cyanide-laced cigarettes! Buxom broads! Pussy Galore and pussy—galore! Ah, those were the days!
I’m really bummed out I missed most of the Cold War. By the time I was old enough to develop any awareness of geopolitical chess, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the match was over. Thanks to Johnny Rivers, though, I can let my imagination fly and pretend I’m the modern version of Mata Hari. I think I’d make a great spy! I already have the outfit (leather trench coat and fedora), I possess the requisite photographic memory and a strong stomach to digest all those secret messages, and I can seduce in multiple languages! Bring back the Soviets and let me at ’em!
I was stunned to learn that Johnny Rivers isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, given their notoriously low standards. That’s not a knock on Johnny Rivers—he was a competent guitarist with a sincere, Everyman voice who remained a constant chart presence for several years. He recorded most of his early stuff live at places like the Whisky A-Go-Go, giving those songs a unique you-are-there-feel that inspired several other artists to either record live or fake it in the studio. You can say anything you want about Johnny Rivers, but there was really nobody quite like him in the 60’s.
“Secret Agent Man” may be an extended version of a TV show theme song, but P. F. Sloan did a nice job extending a snippet into a solid single, and though Rivers wasn’t exactly thrilled about the song, he gave it everything he had. I love the surf-influenced deep reverb distortion on the guitar intro and how it enhances the sense of mystery embedded in the half-step moves in the riff. The song has a great beat, nice cuts and is a shockingly delightful sing-a-long experience.
“A Groovy Kind of Love,” The Mindbenders, April 1966: If I were a songwriter, the last thing I’d do is build a song around a slang word likely to have a very brief shelf life. Apparently Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager felt differently, so they mixed a trendy word with the melody from a tedious piano étude from classical music composer Muzio Clementi, and voilà, a hit forever trapped in the amber of 1966.
Still, Wine and Sager made a ton of money after spending a whole twenty minutes writing the song, so what the fuck do I know?
It is a nice song, and Eric Stewart does very well in his first lead vocal after the departure of Wayne Fontana, reflecting the essential sweetness of the lyrics and imbuing them with romantic, asexual passion. But groovy . . . I can’t get over groovy. I asked my dad if the word was really used that much in daily speech, and he said, “Not really. I think it lasted for a month or two before bitchin’ took over.” He thought for a minute. “Yeah, the sequence was “boss,” then “groovy,” then “bitchin’.” “What about ‘far out?'” “No, that was much later.” “But you guys used ‘cool,’ right?” “Yeah—I think that’s the only one that has never gone out of style.”
After considering the possibilities facing Wine and Sager, “groovy” begins to make more sense. “Boss Kind of Love” would be sexual harassment. “Bitchin’ Kind of Love” would offend sensitive feminists. “Cool Kind of Love” sounds like an icy relationship. “Far Out Kind of Love” sounds like what I do with leather and chains.
Damn. I guess they knew what they were doing.
“Dirty Water,” The Standells, April 1966: Tuesday, June 30, 1998 was a very important day in my life: my first game at Fenway!
It was the best stop in a two-week baseball-themed family vacation. We flew into Cleveland and caught a game at Jacobs Field, drove up Lake Erie to Buffalo to catch the Bisons, spent a couple of days in Cooperstown, then puttered up to Boston to see the greatest baseball park ever built.
Oh yeah—the Red Sox were there, too.
The inter-league match up between the Sox and the Montreal Expos wasn’t much of a game, and the only thing I remember was F. P. Santangelo getting hit twice, by two different Red Sox pitchers. The thing that mattered most to me was seeing a game in Fenway and having the experience exceed my already inflated expectations. Better still, the Red Sox won 7-4—and when the Red Sox win, fans get to clap, stomp and sing along to The Standells “Dirty Water!”
How an entirely unflattering song about Boston turned into a victory celebration for both the Red Sox and the Bruins is a topic for experts in mass psychology. What I hear in “Dirty Water” is something you hear in The Clash: the marriage of punk and social satire. The “punk” in “Dirty Water” comes from Dick Dodd’s sneering, attitude-laced vocal and Tony Valentino’s sharp guitar riff. The social satire is obvious with even a cursory glance at producer Ed Cobb’s lyrics, a harsh assessment of Boston’s livability in the 1960’s:
Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the river Charles
That’s where you’ll find me
Along with lovers, muggers, and thieves
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you’re my home
Have to be in by twelve o’clock
But I’m wishin’ and a-hopin’,
That just once those doors weren’t locked
Given the abundance of opportunities for social criticism in the 1960’s, it’s disappointing that The Standells didn’t capitalize on the popularity of “Dirty Water” and provide some hard-edged realism to balance the emerging rose-colored silliness that would characterize most psychedelic music. Alas, the band went through too many changes in personnel, too many changes in management and too many different record companies to establish a solid footing.
The Standells were one of several L. A. bands who appear in this segment in the series, and nearly all of them suffered from the distractions inherent in a city dominated by the entertainment industry. The Standells appeared on an episode of The Munsters, made an appearance on The Bing Crosby Show and did a couple of low-budget movies. While these side gigs might have looked attractive to young guys trying to make it, you have to wonder if simply being too close to the poisonous glamour of Hollywood and trying to survive in an environment dominated by hordes of professional bullshitters interfered with their musical development.
“When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge, April 1966: 1966 was not only a great year for dominant females but also submissive males. We’ve already seen The Righteous Brothers prostrate themselves before the goddess, but they were amateurs compared to the intense submission of Percy Sledge. His vision of the mistress is also more cruel than I believe necessary to achieve obedience. Make a guy sleep out in the rain? So he can get all moldy and get slugs in the cuffs of his pants? Who would want to fuck him after that?
I do love strong, submissive males, and Percy comes close to Otis Redding-quality in this performance. His full, rich voice, supported by deep but not overwhelming passion, is so captivating that it took me until the third spin to even notice the supporting guitar fills, which are excellent, or that the horns are slightly out of tune. Another contributing factor to those misses was probably the omnipresent hymnal organ, not my favorite sound in the world.
Percy had only a couple of minor hits after this, but made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of this one song. It’s a great piece of work, but you don’t give a pitcher a plaque in Cooperstown on the strength of one no-hitter. Apparently Percy had some juice behind him, while Johnny Rivers didn’t.
“Red Rubber Ball,” The Cyrkle, May 1966: The Cyrkle had to have been the luckiest American band ever. They were the first American act signed by Brian Epstein. John Lennon gave them their name, funny spelling and all. They opened for The Beatles on their final tour, eventually becoming the top-billed warmup act. To their credit, they made the Top 10 with “Red Rubber Ball” before the gigs with The Beatles and had a Top 20 follow-up hit, “Turn-Down Day.”
Even with all those favorable winds blowing, The Cyrkle went kaput by the end of 1967. Bass player and co-lead vocalist Tom Dawes would later pen a tune for the ages: the Alka-Seltzer jingle, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz/Oh, what a relief it is!”
That, my friends, is a significant artifact of American culture.
“Red Rubber Ball” isn’t. The participants in the vocal duet hit the notes with their faux-nasal voices, but put as much energy into their performance as I do folding the towels. It’s a boring, sing-songy tune that Paul Simon co-wrote because he needed some quick cash, and the song bears all the marks of the most overrated songwriter in American history: slightly-modified cliches (“Now I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea”) and painfully obvious metaphors (“The roller coaster ride we took is nearly at an end”). The simile at the center of the song is ridiculous: the guy is shedding bitter tears over a breakup, right? That means his eyes may be red, but not the fucking sun! It would be a yellow-white blur! From Cornell University:
The orange and red tints that the Sun and Moon sometimes take on are caused by the particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. When light (or more specifically, packets of light called photons) from an astronomical object passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, it scatters off of particles in the latter.
So unless Paul Simon counts as an astronomical object, “Red Rubber Ball” is an insult to science.
And like Hillary, I believe in science.
“Paint It, Black,” The Rolling Stones, May 1966: The Stones were on a roll . . . Get It? Stones, roll . . . never mind.
1966 was a great year for the bad boys of rock, featuring one of their best albums in Aftermath and five Top 10 singles. “Paint It, Black” was the only one of the five to make it to the top spot in the USA due to the burst of martial fervor that allowed Sgt. Sadler to keep “19th Nervous Breakdown” at bay. “Paint It, Black” is considered significant because it was the first #1 song to feature the sitar, but while the sitar deepens the mystery inherent in the minor key, what really makes this sucker fly is the sheer intensity The Stones bring to the performance. Wyman’s bass spews thunder, Charlie Watts attacks the drums as if he’s spoiling for a fight, Keith Richards enhances the rhythm through steady bolero strumming and Mick Jagger conjures up thrilling bitterness as he spits out the lines in the second couplet. Brian Jones’ spot fills on the sitar are Goldilocks-perfect: not too much, not too little, just enough to tickle the listener’s curiosity. With “Stupid Girl” on the flip side, this is one single worth every penny and then some.
“Hey Joe,” The Leaves, May 1966: Years ago, when I bought the collection The Leaves . . . are happening: The Best of the Leaves, I found three versions of “Hey, Joe.” Of course, I assumed that the other two were outtakes, and was stunned to learn that no, The Leaves actually recorded and released “Hey, Joe” three times. They pulled the first single because the sound quality was terrible (it is). The second version flopped (deserved). Then they went back into the studio with a new guitarist equipped with that primitive distortion device called a fuzz tone and finally got it right.
Most critics give credit to the fuzz tone for making the song a success, which just tells me that those critics couldn’t be bothered to take the time to compare the different versions. Had they done that, they might have learned that it took more than a fuzz tone to rescue this sucker. The failed versions are played at a ridiculously manic speed with no attention given to the integrity of the various parts—when the recording light went on, every band member played their own parts with tremendous intensity without giving a shit what the other guys were doing. In one of the early versions, lead singer John Beck is trying way too hard to sound like a black guy; in the other he just barrels along like everyone else in the band. The only part that sounds right through all the different variations is Jim Pons’ muscular bass.
In the final version, they made several changes and improvements. They slowed down the tempo just a teensy bit. They obviously started listening to each other and lowered the volume on the supporting parts to give more prominence to the soloists. They added a screaming harmonica run to the intro, and when combined with the sustained fuzz tone, created an absolute killer opening. But most importantly, John Beck finally found the right persona on which to build his vocal—the classic character of the sidekick, a guy like Chester from Gunsmoke. Beck becomes the dumb-ass tagalong whose voice stutters and skips when he gets excited, full of the hesitations we hear in natural speech. This not only enriches the you-are-there feeling but frees his vocal from strict adherence to the rhythm, short-circuiting listener expectations. Finally, after fucking with this song for what must have seemed like forever, it feels like these guys really wanted to nail it, and boy, did they ever! The Leaves version of “Hey, Joe” is my absolute favorite garage song of all-time.
And to think they were discovered by none other that Pat Boone. Talk about mind-blowing!
“Along Comes Mary,” The Association, June 1966: And the award for the songwriter who can cram the most lyrics into a three-minute song goes to Tandyn Almer, composer of “Along Comes Mary!” The song is memorable primarily because it was the only Association single not specifically targeted for high school prom and television commercial niche markets. Believe it or not, people actually thought this song had meaning back in 1966, in large part because “Mary” was a nickname for marijuana, and if you could smell the marijuana in a song, man, it must have had meaning!
It doesn’t. Once you sit down with the lyric sheet, you quickly discover it was written by a guy whose head was filled with ghosts of ideas that never came close to gelling into something of substance. The crowding of dozens of syllables into nearly every line guarantees that the listener will never discover that the words are nothing more than fragments of gibberish.
“Pretty Flamingo,” Manfred Mann, June 1966: When I tell you that Manfred Mann is a hard act to follow, I’m not talking about their performance style, but their trajectory. They started as a jazz-blues combo, did a 180 to pop-rock and spent several years earning their daily bread through cover songs. During that period there were numerous lineup changes, musicians switching instruments and no discernible artistic direction. In 1971 they became Manfred Mann Chapter Three, doing “experimental jazz-rock,” then became a Springsteen cover band under the moniker Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. This is the band you’ll see on the “See Them Before They Croak” tours that delight aging Baby Boomers today.
I refused to exercise my option to review “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” a thoroughly empty experience that somehow topped the USA charts during the first year of the Invasion. I opted for “Pretty Flamingo” primarily because it was one of the first songs I learned on acoustic guitar, and secondarily because the bass player who happened to wander into the wacky world of Manfred Mann at that moment in time was none other than Jack Bruce.
Jack didn’t have much to do on this one, which is probably why he moved on to bigger and better things.
This was Paul Jones’ last turn at the mike for Manfred Mann, and he sings with the confidence of a man looking forward to a successful solo career that he believes will begin almost as soon as the session is over. While that didn’t work out as hoped, his vocal on “Pretty Flamingo” is a gorgeous balance of soulful grit and melodic command. His voice also blends perfectly with Tom McGuinness’ National Steel Guitar.
I will say that the 45 isn’t half as good as the stereo remaster: the falsetto tracking vocal is way too loud on the 45. If this was intended to mimic the sound of a real flamingo, the engineer was an idiot: a flamingo sounds like the belches expelled by a fat guy with a world-class beer belly.
“Little Girl,” Syndicate of Sound, June 1966: When The Beatles were rejected by Decca, Brian Epstein was advised that “guitar groups are on the way out.” The appalling blindness of that prediction would haunt Decca repeatedly in the years that followed, most powerfully in the sheer number of amateur bands that formed in response to the Invasion. These bands came to be known in America as “garage bands” because the suburban garage was pretty much the only place such bands could play without damaging precious middle class possessions on display in the living or family rooms.
Garage Band Rule #1: Don’t fuck with mom.
While there were garage bands before The Beatles, the arrival of the Fab Four and their brethren caused bands to sprout up all over the country. No census data is available, but the number of bands formed in the States during this period is estimated in the many thousands. As there were no true national radio stations in those pre-satellite-radio days, music was channeled through local and regional outlets, each with its own stable of disk jockeys competing for teenage listeners. These guys (gal DJ’s were extremely rare) were pretty smart cookies, and they saw that the burgeoning band scene gave them a golden opportunity to capitalize on regional provincialism by giving local bands a shot at the big time while simultaneously increasing their listening audience: The Battle of the Bands.
There were actually two manifestations of The Battle of the Bands. One was virtual: a radio station would create a list of the most popular artists and organize them into a competitive bracket, rather like the NCAA tourney. The DJ would announce a round, play a song by each artist, then open up the phone lines to callers, who would cast their votes for their preference. For example, in the first round you might have Paul Revere & The Raiders battling Simon & Garfunkel, and the winner would go on to the next round to face another the winner of The Beatles vs. The Byrds matchup, and so on. My dad said these were a regular feature on San Jose radio station KLIV and was absolutely crushed when one year The Raiders defeated The Beatles in the finals.
The more familiar manifestation of The Battle of the Bands—still common today—was the live competition where bands were evaluated by judges, the response of the listening audience or both. In the Bay Area, where the number of bands in the mid-60’s approached astronomical levels, you couldn’t just sign up—you had to audition for a slot. The battle itself frequently took place in venues large enough to have two to four bands playing simultaneously in opposite ends of the space. One of my dad’s bands competed at a county fair, playing at one end of those large pavilions usually reserved for farm animals, a place that naturally stunk like shit.
His band came in 63rd out of 64 bands, so his band stunk like shit, too. He played me a tape of part of their performance and I can’t begin to imagine how bad #64 must have been. To be fair, Dad was pretty decent on rhythm guitar, but the lead singer was overly excited and the bass player was out to lunch. Even though he only had to play the root note of the chords, frequently he would miss one and play the next note twice to make up for it.
The Syndicate of Sound won the Bay Area Vox Battle of the Bands in 1965, beating out 100 other bands and earning themselves a recording session at Del-Fi records, a minor label whose claims to fame were Ritchie Valens and teen television idol Johnny Crawford. The single that came out of that session didn’t do much, but as SOS member Bob Gonzalez remarked in a Something Else! interview with Steve Elliott, “It did what we needed: we could then be booked as ‘recording artists.'” After recording “Little Girl” with the small San Francisco label Hush Records, extensive local airplay on KLIV (which must have been one helluva station) turned it into a regional hit. After that the song spread like wildfire and was eventually picked up by Bell Records for national distribution. “Little Girl” peaked at #8 on the Hot 100.
Though stylistically influenced by Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” “Little Girl” is another thing entirely, a musical and rhythmic romp combining a fabulous 12-string guitar riff, punk-intensity drumming, rhythmic shifts executed with perfection and a lead vocal drenched in attitude. The band is exceptionally tight on the rhythm but gorgeously loose on the feel, a combination resulting from Don Baskin’s cocky vocal, on-point hand-clapping and playful little touches like the off-pattern riff you hear in a brief break and at the end of the song. “Little Girl” captures the excitement and enthusiasm of the original garage band era, a grass-roots, democratizing revolution that turned millions of passive listeners into active participants in the sacred act of making music.
The Syndicate of Sound Forever!
“Wild Thing”/”With a Girl Like You,” The Troggs, June 1966: My favorite version of “Wild Thing” is and will always be X’s version in Major League. I was only seven years old when we saw it in the theatre and I’ll never forget how the theatre shook with the vibrations from the surround sound. My parents and I watch Major League every year the night before Opening Day to get us in the right frame of mind for another great season of baseball.
As for The Troggs’ version, it’s a garage classic, recorded along with “A Girl Like You” in twenty minutes flat because they’d run out of studio time. Reg Presley nailed both vocals with a sullen vulnerability that is irrefuckingsisistible. “A Girl Like You” is probably the better song from a technical perspective, but “Wild Thing” is . . . well, it’s “Wild Thing,” so shut the fuck up!
“I Can’t Control Myself” is also in my dad’s collection, and though male music critics go ga-ga over that allegedly erotic song, it just goes to show that most men fuck like animals and have brains to match. Gentlemen! The message, “I want to control you but I can’t control myself” is not the kind of line I advise you to use on the bar circuit!
“I Put a Spell on You,” Alan Price Set, July 1966: In looking at the 45’s released in 1966, it’s stunning how many of them featured the organ. As noted above, I’m not a fan of the church organ, which can give me the creeps, nor the thin, reedy sound that reminds me of the whine of the dentist’s office.
But I love the tone of Alan Price’s organ on “I Put a Spell on You.” By fattening the tone and opening the song in relative stillness, Price took Screaming’ Jay Hawkins seriously over-the-top, ghoulish original and turned it into a more compelling psychodrama—the inner voice of the desperate, introverted man acting out a ridiculous control fantasy involving spell-casting. I would also argue that Price’s vocal is as good or better than anything Eric Burdon did, so when Price left, The Animals lost not only a pretty good keyboard player but a singer who could have added some variety to their sound.
“7 and 7 Is,” Love, July 1966: After having trashed the shit out of Forever Changes, one might think I’m trying to make amends by writing a glowing review of “7 and 7 Is.”
I find the album that preceded their alleged masterpiece (Da Capo) a fascinating piece of work, and that includes all eighteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds of “Revelation.” The album’s centerpiece, the single “7 and 7 Is,” is simply one of the most exciting and brilliantly-executed singles ever released.
That’s just my humble opinion, of course, and I have to point out that the American listening public of 1966 did not share my passion. The song peaked at #33 on the charts and didn’t hang around too long.
“7 and 7 Is” is the aural definition of intensity. The song takes off in full flight with chords crashing, bass sliding and the drums pounding away. The persistent high-speed drum roll, punctuated with occasional cymbal crashes was an Olympian effort that took drummer Snoopy Pfisterer thirty takes to get right (with a whole lot of help from Arthur Lee). The lyrics, enormously enhanced by Arthur Lee’s angry, defiant vocal, capture the intense frustration of growing up in a world where parents pay little attention to their offspring. “7 and 7 Is” is the hellish version of “In My Room,” where the teenager’s room becomes not a sanctuary but the equivalent of psychological solitary confinement:
When I was a boy I thought about the times I’d be a man
I’d sit inside a bottle and pretend that I was in a can
In my lonely room I’d sit my mind in an ice cream cone
You can throw me if you want to ’cause I’m a bone and I go
Boom-dip-dip, boom dip-dip, yeah!
If I don’t start cryin’ it’s because that I have got no eyes
My father’s in the fireplace and my dog lies hypnotized
Through a crack of light I was unable to find my way
Trapped inside a night but I’m a day and I go
Boom-dip-dip, boom dip-dip, yeah!
That line “trapped inside a night but I’m a day” breaks my heart and soul.
After the verses end, Love ratchets it up another notch, building to a guitar-screaming conclusion that ends in a massive explosion, followed by a slow-dance-tempo blues guitar fade. The explosion has been interpreted as an atom bomb, but in the context of the lyrical story, sounds more like the ominous result of parental neglect.
An absolute masterpiece.
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha, Haaa!” Napoleon XIV, July 1966: Since I announced in the first post of this series that I would only cover one sample of the annoying genre known as novelty songs, you’ve probably been losing sleep trying to figure out which one I would choose. “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh?” “The Name Game?” “Alley Oop?” “Ahab the Arab?” “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron?” “Monster Mash?” “Beep Beep?”
There really was no contest. Napoleon XIV’s contribution to human suffering is the novelty song to end all novelty songs.
The plot in five seconds: a man loses his dog, goes berserk and is now awaiting transport to a mental hospital. The gimmick in five seconds: recording engineer Jerry Samuels (aka Napoleon XIV) uses a variable speed oscillator to make his voice sound weird. The controversy in five seconds: many radio stations banned it because they thought it was wrong to make fun of the mentally ill.
It was very hard to listen to this sucker three times, and it’s not because I think the piece is demeaning. I think the piece is fucking awful. “Who the fuck would want to listen to this shit?” I kept asking myself. A whole lot of people, apparently. This 45 shot up to the Top 10 at hyper-speed, then plummeted just as quickly after the backlash.
The song itself is meaningless. The meaning lies in what it reveals about the culture. Americans tend to make fun of things that frighten them or disturb them, and mental illness is as terrifying to them as the lone wolf ISIS nut. “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha” is the anthem for a society in denial about a massive problem that isn’t going to go away by poking fun at it.
I am so thankful that I will never have to hear it again.
“Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” The Four Tops, August 1966: I came oh-so-close to including The Four Tops in my Motown Series, but found that too many of their songs followed the formula of their previous hit. “It’s the Same Old Song” was “I Can’t Help Myself” with the chords reversed. “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” was followed by “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” which used similar instrumentation. That modus operandi might have worked well in terms of songwriter productivity and marketing, but isn’t much fun for a reviewer.
Still, The Four Tops were a major Motown force noted for their amazing stability (over forty years without a change in the lineup) and for one of the greatest lead singers in any genre, Levi Stubbs. Combined with first class support from The Funk Brothers and generally high-quality material from Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Tops were regulars in the Top 10 for much of the decade.
It’s remarkable to consider how many songs destined for iconic status were originally thought to be b-sides or album filler. Such was the case with “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” which The Tops thought was destined for obscurity. Duke Fakir of The Tops described how it all came about in an interview with Dave Simpson of The Guardian:
The finished song didn’t sound like the Four Tops. We just assumed it was some experimental thing that would go on an album. A few weeks later, Motown boss Berry Gordy sent us a memo: “Make sure your taxes are taken care of – because we’re going to release the biggest record you’ve ever had.” He called us into his office, and I remember one of us asking: “So when are we going to record this great song?” He said: “You already have.” We’re all thinking: “Huh? We haven’t recorded anything better than I Can’t Help Myself. Then he played Reach Out and we said: “Hold on, Berry, we were just experimenting. Please don’t release that as a single. It’s not us. It has a nice rhythm to it but if you release that we’ll be on the charts with an anchor.” He laughed, but we left the meeting feeling very upset, almost angry.
I was out driving when I heard the song on the radio for the first time. It hit me like a lead pipe. I turned my car round and drove right back to Berry’s office. He was in a meeting but I opened the door and just said: “Berry, don’t ever talk to us about what you’re releasing. Just do what you do. Bye.”
The experimentation Duke mentioned took many forms. The song’s foundation was a backing track The Funk Brothers had put together with non-standard instrumentation and a novel rhythmic technique using timpani mallets hitting a tambourine to replace the typical drum beat. HDH liked to write songs that forced Levi Stubbs to strain his voice to create a gospel-like effect, but for this piece Eddie Holland wanted more: he still wanted Levi to strain and struggle, but he also wanted him to deliver the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s shouting style. After giving Levi some time to work out the lead vocal, The Tops reassembled and wrapped up the session in two takes.
I remember having a similar reaction to Duke’s when I first heard this song as a kid, though I wouldn’t have described it as a lead pipe moment. I was absolutely enchanted by the introduction, which called up images from my children’s edition picture book of The Arabian Nights. I don’t remember much else about the song—I was far too young to get into the groove—but that fragment of memory has stayed with me for years.
Now that I’m a grownup, what I notice most about the intro isn’t so much the piccolo but James Jemerson’s strong bass and those two tiny measures following the theme when you wait in delicious tension for Levi to make his entrance. From there you hear a singer in full command of a song, enhancing the groove through superb phrasing and using his inherent empathy to dig deep into the lyrical subtext and bring the appropriate emotional variation to the forefront. Those lyrics are the purest expression of unconditional love and support that you will find in popular music, and Levi’s complete sincerity gives those lyrics a stunning immediacy.
Goddamn, what a song!
“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” 13th Floor Elevators, August 1966: The Elevators hailed from Austin, Texas, where they are apparently still fondly remembered. How nice!
All I know is this: if you’re into Axl Rose, you’re going to love lead singer Roky Ericsson’s vocal performance. I can’t stand more than five seconds of Axl Rose, and he takes Roky down with him.
On the upside, I’d love to hear an instrumental version. Stacy Sunderland’s lead guitar, Benny Thurman’s bass and Tommy Hall’s magic electric jug combine to create an edgy, eerie soundscape that is quite compelling. The Wikipedia article on the song makes several outrageous claims, citing influences such as John Coltrane (crap) and Little Richard (bullshit), but does provide the useful information that the band was on acid during the recording. The author also asserts that “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was the first psychedelic record, a claim made by a least half a dozen other bands and one that falls into the category of “Who Gives a Fuck?” The bottom line is “You’re Gonna Miss Me” spent a grand total of one week on the national charts, at #95, so as is true with everything else that comes out of the wacko state of Texas, its claim to fame is seriously exaggerated.
“96 Tears” ? and The Mysterians, August 1966: I’ve heard people today parrot the suggestion that “96 Tears” started the punk rock movement. The origin of that assertion is a statement by David Marsh of CREEM magazine dating back to 1971. Specifically, he used the word “punk” to describe the attitude he heard in “96 Tears”—that James Dean-like, non-conformist, leather-clad, dangling cigarette nonchalance that is the visual manifestation of great rock ‘n’ roll.
So let’s set the record straight. “96 Tears” isn’t punk and it didn’t ignite the punk revolution. While its directness and song length fit into generic punk parameters, “96 Tears” fits better into the R&B category, echoing the early work of The Rolling Stones. It’s the 1966 version of “Time Is On My Side,” and Question Mark’s vocal reflects the same bad boy attitude you hear in Mick Jagger’s voice.
“96 Tears” is important because it hit the airwaves at a time when rock was starting to wander from its R&B roots, a trend that would reach full flower (pun intended) at the peak of the psychedelic era. The fact that many early psychedelic songs were in fact R&B songs dressed up in funny noises doesn’t weaken the argument. What’s missing in those songs is the attitude captured in “96 Tears.”
Influence aside, I personally wish they would have recorded the song without the organ, a feature most people describe as “signature” but I would describe as “too fucking loud” and “irritating.” My favorite part of the song is the bridge, when the engineers finally lower the organ in the mix and you hear rough guitar chords and Question Mark’s intensely sexy vocal. I also wish they’d kept the original title, as “69 Tears” is much more provocative and fitting.
“Walk Away Renee,” The Left Banke, September 1966: “Walk Away Renee” represents everything that “96 Tears” isn’t. It’s a lovely, baroque pop song with no attitude whatsoever featuring complex chord movement and an arrangement highlighting oboe, strings and harpsichord. The wistfulness of this song about the unattainable woman is somehow enhanced by Steve Martin Caro’s slurred and muttered vocal (that also makes it quite difficult to make out the words).
Back in the 60’s, the two extremes represented by “96 Tears” and “Walk Away Renee” co-existed peacefully, as demonstrated by the diversity in my dad’s record collection. The eclecticism of dad’s purchases was a direct result of the way people listened to music in the 50’s and 60’s.
Today we live in a world where we can access music through a multitude of sources at home or on the go. We can also refine and customize the experience so we hear only the music we choose to hear—either passively (by choosing to listen to radio stations that only play music in our preferred sub-genre) or actively (by creating a Spotify or iPod playlist you can take anywhere).
If you wanted to listen to rock during the years when my dad was growing up, you had to tune into a Top 40 AM station, either at home, in your car or on the beach through the tinny speaker of a transistor radio. Top 40 radio played music from all over the popular music spectrum, so while waiting for “Paperback Writer” to come up in the rotation, you might find yourself listening to Barbra Streisand or Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. Of course, you could punch the button on your car radio and hope to get lucky with another station, but you did not have the option of hearing a song when you wanted to hear it unless you were standing next to your phonograph. Having to listen to artists who weren’t your bag was an everyday experience, and sometimes the inconvenience encouraged you to appreciate music outside your usual boundaries (hence the multiple appearances of Sinatra in my dad’s collection). You might have cranked it up when you heard “96 Tears,” but in a few weeks you’d also be singing along to “Walk Away Renee” or “Working in the Coal Mine” or even “Born Free.” The distinction we make today between what is “rock” and what is “pop” was hardly a bone of contention in the mid-60’s. Even when alternative FM stations like KMPX emerged on the scene, they eschewed specialization, rotating jazz, folk, blues and world music along with rock.
The music I heard on the home stereo when I was a kid reflected the cornucopic tendencies of my parents. That’s why I have a very different definition of “rock” compared to a Ted Nugent fanatic or your standard punk aficionado. To me, the essence of rock is its incredible diversity. I can listen to Buddy Holly one minute and Jethro Tull the next. Today you might find me immersed in Radiohead; tomorrow I may be deep into Lynyrd Skynyrd. There are times I want to shake my fanny and there are times I want to tilt my head back and drift along to the sounds of lovely melodies and harmonies, and more than any other genre, rock allows me to have those experiences.
If there’s one thing I’m dogmatic about when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, it’s this: rock ‘n’ roll has no limits. It can go wherever the artist wants to take it. For the listener, it’s like a never-ending adventure where you never know what you’re going to you’re going to discover along the way.
There’s plenty of room in rock for both “96 Tears” and “Walk Away Renee,” and that’s why I love it so much.
“Mellow Yellow,” Donovan, November 1966: And yes, there’s even room in rock for guys like Donovan, damnit.
When I came across this 45 with Donovan’s name etched in bold on the classic yellow Epic label, I wanted to cry. I knew I’d have to do the song, but that meant I’d have to live up to my standards and listen to it three times. After having allowed my father to manipulate me into reviewing two Donovan albums and then being forced by my own stupid principles to listen to those albums three times, I thought I had paid off the karmic debt that condemned me into such a cruel fate.
No such luck. I’m actually going to review two Donovan songs in this series.
I’m an idiot.
The basic message of “Mellow Yellow” is this: Donovan has a good relationship with his cat, has a thing for fourteen-year old girls and believes that the vibrator is the wave of the future. I don’t care about the first point, find the second point somewhat disturbing and while I agree that vibrators can be very useful at times, there’s nothing quite like the real thing.
He also tries to make another point, but damned if I can figure out what the hell he’s talking about:
Born high forever to fly
Wind velocity nil
Born high forever to fly
If you want your cup I will fill
The man should have been locked up on the grounds of felony syntactic torture, but let’s unravel the mess and see if we can find a scrap of significance. Donovan was apparently born high, which means he may have been a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. That would explain a lot. But then he says he is going to fly forever when the wind is completely still. This is an impossibility for an airplane, which needs at least the wind generated by its own forward movement to gain sufficient lift. Assuming Donovan hadn’t sprouted wings, this would indicate he is referring to another form of flying, and given the times, this would likely mean “flying” with the aid of some form of controlled or uncontrolled substance. After repeating his accusation of pre-birth child abuse and reminding us of his capacity for eternal flight, he then offers an unseen companion a cup, but will only give the companion the cup if the companion wants the cup—in which case, Donovan will fill it. With what? And why? Is he using the phrase “fill my cup” in the sense of filling one’s life with joy or good cheer, or literally filling the cup with . . . wine, coffee, tea, lemonade, or acid-spiked punch? Hmm. They do call him “Mellow Yellow” (quite rightly, by the way), so maybe that’s a clue. But it can’t be lemonade, because you drink lemonade from a glass, not a cup. Hmm. What other yellowish liquid is commonly deposited in a cup?
The “controversies” associated with this song border on the ridiculous. Prior to Donovan admitting he was talking about a vibrator, theories regarding the “electrical banana” ranged from a nod to a member of The Youngbloods nicknamed “Banana” to an advertisement of the belief that one could get a great high by scraping the fiber off a banana skin and burning it. Some people identified Paul McCartney as the whisperer, but no, that’s definitely Donovan, and if McCartney did appear on the recording, it was probably as one of the revelers who were brought in to make “Mellow Yellow” sound like a party song.
Why would Donovan want “Mellow Yellow” sound like a party song? Because Bob Dylan made “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” sound like a party song, and Donovan knew he had to keep up with the Mr. Joneses.
“Pushin’ Too Hard,” The Seeds, December 1966: The Seeds are a somewhat difficult band to research because much of the information you find reads like campaign literature designed to convince voters to elect them to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I wish that fucking place had never been built.
“Pushin’ Too Hard” was their only significant national hit and is often cited as a proto-punk song of widespread influence. I suppose it’s possible that if they had they continued in that vein they might have already achieved glory in Cleveland. Instead, they charged full steam ahead into the flowery world of psychedelic rock, and when that didn’t work out, did a 180 back to their garage roots. They eventually disappeared from view when Sky Saxon found religion.
“Pushin’ Too Hard” is a halfway decent song, and I mean that literally. At the midway point they shift the emphasis of the lyrics from “get off my back and let me be myself” to “you better stop messing around, you filthy slut,” transforming a song about refusing to live up to other people’s expectations into a classic display of male insecurity. And though the song moves nicely and the band is pretty tight, Sky Saxon’s whiny sneer gets rather tiresome pretty quickly.
“I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” The Electric Prunes, December 1966: In the Battle of the Bands with Silly Band Names, The Electric Prunes edged out The Blues Magoos because of their adventurous spirit.
The Electric Prunes did some interesting work in their relatively brief career because they were hard-wired to seek out new sounds and sonic textures. The high-speed wobbling sound you hear at the beginning of this song was a studio accident, but the fact that they kept the recording and used it when the opportunity presented itself tells you a lot about their musical antennae. “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” is filled with curious sounds, unexpected pauses and sudden drum attacks, and the Prunes forged all the disparate elements into a credible composition, creating a Gothic atmosphere that calls up shadowy images of midnight blue and black. Underpinning the mood is a pretty decent rock song, making “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” one of the more successful early psychedelic experiments.
“Hello, Hello,” The Sopwith Camel, December 1966: I was thoroughly charmed by this song when I was a child, especially the line, “Would you like some of my tangerines?” I thought that was the epitome of good manners and for months I insisted my mother buy tangerines so I could have them handy whenever one of my little friends paid a visit. One day during my tangerine obsession, a boy down the street came to play with me. Minding my manners and playing the perfect little hostess, I dashed into the kitchen and helped my mother assemble a nicely-arranged tray of tangerine segments to offer my guest. Balancing the tray carefully in my pudgy little hands, I walked into the living room and held out the tray. “Would you like some of my tangerines?” I asked sweetly. He wrinkled up his nose and said, “I hate tangerines!” “Well, I hate you!” I screamed, threw a handful of tangerines in his face and ran crying into my bedroom.
I never played with the rude little bastard again.
“Hello, Hello” was also the first song I performed at our annual New Year’s Eve bash. Maman accompanied me on piano and dad added a few counterpoints on the kazoo. I did a little Shirley Temple-like dance routine and ended with a boop-boop-be-doo that drove the crowd wild.
Thank my lucky stars there were no pedophiles in the family.
Sopwith Camel was a San Francisco band that came to national attention when “Hello, Hello” entered the Top 10 early in 1967. The exited the scene in late 1967 after one hit single, one eponymous album and a few national tours backing up headliners like The Young Rascals, The Who, The Stones and the band most similar to them in terms of style and song selection, The Lovin’ Spoonful. That first album is a hoot, and “Hello, Hello” remains one of my favorite songs of all time. The arrangement is cheeky, clever and executed with enough precision to hold it together but not too much precision to sap the vibes. I adore Peter Kramer’s cottony, genteel voice and his appropriately casual phrasing. For a long time I wondered if the song would have sounded even better with a tuba replacing the bass, but concluded that a tuba would have turned the song into a weak joke. Martin Beard’s bass runs now sound perfectly delightful to me.
While Sopwith Camel would reform a few years later and produce a second album with the engaging title The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon, they missed out on the notoriety associated with Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and others in the madness surrounding the Summer of Love—when San Francisco became the musical epicenter of the universe, especially to those under the influence.
“Gimme Some Lovin’,” Spencer Davis Group, December 1966: These guys had already topped the U. K. charts twice with “Keep on Running” and “Somebody Help Me,” but neither song did diddly squat in the U. S.
I assume someone connected in the band must have spent some time studying American musical tastes in 1966 and concluded, “Those Yanks are obsessed with organs.”
True on multiple levels.
Being a band of male multi-instrumentalists, the organ represented no major obstacle, so they paired Stevie Winwood with a Hammond B-3, borrowed the riff from “(Ain’t That) A Lot of Love” and hammered out the song in a few minutes. Producer Jimmy Miller added additional percussion and Motown-like female background singers as kind of a Plan B to ensure acceptance in the American market. As it turned out, the additions may have added some sense of excitement, but the feature that really sealed the deal was the sound of that ferocious organ riff.
I could say that the organ allowed Spencer Davis to penetrate the Top 10, but I won’t, even though I already did.
Stevie Winwood immediately became The Great White Hope and one of the major figures associated with something they called “blue-eyed soul.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. The ability to sing soulfully has nothing to do with the color of one’s eyes or skin. While it’s true that African-Americans dominate the history of soul and R&B, that phenomenon is a product of cultural history, not genes. Black slaves brought the rhythms of West African music to the States and merged those rhythms with Christian hymns and the agony of slavery to express soul-level emotion in gospel music. Nearly every great black singer in the 20th century had some grounding in the music of the black churches, while white people sang their church hymns in a formal, mechanical style similar to rote learning. White culture was shaped by the Enlightenment emphasis on rational thought; black culture was shaped by the emotional and physical pain of forced captivity.
White people have been trying to emulate the sound of black singers since the early days of Louis Armstrong, and while many of those attempts fall into the pathetic-and-laughable category, those who truly loved black music enough to immerse themselves in its history learned that they had to dig deep into their emotions to achieve credibility. While none of them experienced anything close to the inhumanity of slavery, we all have reservoirs of painful experience in our souls we can call on—and the more in touch one is with the pain, the more in touch one is with one’s joy. The great soul singers express the extremes of pain and joy by reaching deep into their experience.
As far as Stevie Winwood goes, he was still in his teens but had some exposure to jazz and R&B as well as an obvious gift for music in general. I think he does a decent job on “Gimme Some Lovin’,” despite his nearly complete unintelligibility. He’s also difficult to decipher on “I’m a Man,” and believe me, you don’t want to know what he’s singing—the lyrics are flat-out fucking weird. “Gimme Some Lovin'” is clearly the more exciting of the two, and a nice way to end our trip through a very exciting year in music history.
This has been a pretty long post, but I felt it important to give 1966 serious attention as the threads of influence emanating from that year endure to this day. 1967 would also prove to be a pivotal year for music as well—and a pivotal year for my father. We’ll cover both in the last post of this series as we arrive at the bottom of the stack of my dad’s 45’s.