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.
Forever Changes has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Recording Registry. Rolling Stone ranked it #40 on its Best 500 Albums List.
Number fucking forty. Higher than The Doors, Electric Ladyland, Sticky Fingers, Moondance, Purple Rain, Odessey and Oracle, Aqualung and (gasp-choke) A Love Supreme.
Better than John Coltrane at his moment of spiritual ascension? This I gotta hear!
I was completely unfamiliar with Forever Changes before I began this series because it isn’t in my dad’s collection. He traded in his copy a few months after he bought it but didn’t remember much about it. The only thing I knew about Arthur Lee and Love is that they produced one of the greatest garage songs ever, “7 and 7 Is.” The quality of that song led me to overcome any skepticism generated by Rolling Stone’s opinion (they have so much weight with me) and the “uh-oh” feeling generated by the Grammy induction. I really looked forward to listening to Forever Changes.
I have now listened to Forever Changes intensely and completely six times just to make sure that the reaction I had after the normal three spins was an honest, thoughtful and considered reaction. It was: in fact, I had the same reaction after the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth time around and the reaction not only remained stable but increased in intensity. I will now share my statistically valid response to Forever Changes.
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
I can’t believe anyone in their right minds would think this record had much value, much less try to tell me that it’s better than anything The Kinks ever did, better than The Stones’ best album or in the same league as A Love Supreme. I began to wonder if this was one of those situations where a mover-and-shaker decides it’s a great album, so everyone says it’s a great album, like Pet Sounds and Astral Weeks. After reading the review on iTunes, I began to wonder if even the people reviewing the album had actually listened to it. The review opens with the line, “One of the psychedelic era’s most pleasing albums . . .”
Oh, yes. It’s so pleasing to hear lyrics like, “Oh, the snot has caked against my pants,” and “Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die.” Ian Anderson used the word “snot” on “Aqualung,” and while I think it’s a great song, the adjective “pleasing” hardly applies.
Well, I did listen to Forever Changes and it’s anything but pleasing. Bland is more like it. It’s not psychedelically ear-shattering, noisy or cacophonous; it’s simply boring. Every song begins with acoustic guitar, and the repetition becomes quite annoying. Arthur Lee’s decision to overdub horns and strings may have worked had he possessed the musical talent of a George Martin, but he didn’t, and the overdubs sound more like the music that accompanies television commercials than credible artistic contributions. What I hear on Forever Changes is an American band trying very hard to sound like a mid-60’s British band and failing miserably. The back story of the recording describes a chaotic environment with drugs, conflict between Arthur Lee and contributing songwriter-member Bryan MacLean, band members replaced by session musicians, band members coming back and giving it a go . . . rather like a precursor of Let It Be. Arthur Lee dealt with the chaos by imposing his will, and while Forever Changes does have a sense of unity, there’s nothing underneath the hood.
That is because is large part Arthur Lee abandoned his original vision, as described in the Wikipedia article on Love: “However, after viewing a performance by the Byrds, Lee became determined to form a group that joined the newly minted folk-rock sound of the Byrds to his primarily rhythm and blues style.” Had Arthur Lee accomplished that, we might indeed have something here, but there’s hardly a hint of rhythm and blues on this record, and none of the songs make you want to get up and boogie.
Forever Changes opens with “Alone Again Or,” a composition that has been lauded by critics despite the fact that the tune was ripped off from Prokofiev. Critics were also deeply impressed with the contrast between the happy music and the sad lyrics. I was not, and I found the introduction of stereotypical Mariachi trumpets a superficial and offensive attempt to integrate Latin sounds. As for the lyrics to what one reviewer called “the best pop song ever,” well, read them for yourself:
Said that’s alright
I won’t forget
All the times I’ve waited patiently for you
And you’ll do just what you choose to do
And I will be alone again tonight my dear
I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are the greatest fun
And I will be alone again tonight my dear
Yes, the lyrics could have been written by a precocious eleven-year old who had heard almost all of these lines in other pop songs. This isn’t poetry: it’s a collection of fragmentary thought focused on a trivial issue.
“A House is Not a Motel” is Arthur Lee’s first contribution, a cascade of gibberish culminating in the disconnected rock cliché phrase, “You can call my name.” His vocal begins in a low register that slowly builds into intense passion (source unknown) and a screamed “all right now” that in turn leads to a shitty guitar solo. Forced is a good word for this song. “Andmoreagain” is Love trying to be The Left Banke; the vocal sounds like a Brit with his pants on too tight and the strings are pure Ray Conniff. Tiring quickly of the Left Banke, Love turns into The Bee Gees on Bee Gees’ 1st, producing harmonies that are eerily similar to “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You.” The lyrics are classic drug-induced nonsense: empty words imbued with meaning only to someone whose brain is incapable of processing complete thoughts.
In “Old Man,” MacLean drags out the wise old man who either speaks in parables or gives you a magic trinket to aid you on your quest. The trinket here is a tiny ivory ball, which begs the question, “If he’s a wise old man, why is he aiding and abetting the slaughter of elephants?” The wisdom the old man dispenses is the same “wisdom” The Beatles dispensed in “She Loves You”: get your head out of your ass and check out the hot babe in front of you:
Now it seems
Things are not so strange
I can see more clearly
Suddenly I’ve found my way
I know the old man would laugh
He spoke of love’s sweeter days
And in his eloquent way
I think he was speaking of you
You are so lovely
You didn’t have to say a thing
MacLean’s efforts to sound British here echo my dad’s description of how every American boy affected a British accent after watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
“The Red Telephone” is where you’ll find the line about watching people die. You’ll also hear more drug-induced neurotic ramblings. It could be describing a descent into madness, but I don’t think Arthur Lee had the negative capability of a Keats to pull off the necessary level of detachment. The one good thing about this song is the line “We are normal and we want our freedom,” a line lifted from Marat/Sade which the Bonzo Dog Band put to much better use in the opener to The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (Urban Spaceman to you Yanks). It’s followed by another insult to the Mexican people, “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hillsdale,” which faithfully adopts the artistic dogma of the times that your song or your movie must have a very long title that no one can possibly remember.
Still waiting for a glint of originality, I’m certainly not going to find it in a song with a cliché for a title, “Live and Let Live.” This is the snot song mentioned above, and surprisingly, this one has at least a germ of an idea before Arthur’s ADHD kicks in and he goes a-wandering. He seems to be satirizing the American propensities for gun violence and conquest, but never really comes up with the killer line to clinch the deal:
Oh the snot has caked against my pants
It has turned into crystal
There’s a bluebird sitting on a branch
I guess I’ll take my pistol
I’ve got it in my hand
Because he’s on my land
And so the story ended
Do you know it oh so well
Well should you need I’ll tell you
The end, end, end, end, end, end, end, end
Yes I’ve seen you sitting on the couch
I recognize your artillery
I have seen you many times before
Once when I was an Indian
And I was on my land
Why can’t you understand
“Why can’t you understand?” or some version thereof was a common theme of the 60’s generational wars: the same theme you hear in “She’s Leaving Home,” in various teenage angst songs and, more gruesomely, in the movie If. To borrow a phrase from the times, it’s a total cop-out, a rhetorical question used by a bunch of whiners who couldn’t express themselves well enough to make them understood. They really didn’t want an answer to that question, because that would have required them to engage in dialogue with people they’d already judged as hopeless straights.
Yet another long title awaits us in “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This,” so I guess Arthur Lee saw a lot of movies during this period, a pretty easy habit to fall into when you live in Los Angeles. The ninth song in a row to begin with acoustic guitar, I tune out immediately when I hear the Herb Alpert trumpets which alert me that Dionne Warwick might show up at any minute. The song is the equivalent of a babbling brook with a heavy emphasis on the babbling. It’s followed by “Bummer in the Summer,” an Arthur Lee rap where the title describes the quality of the song. Thankfully, Forever Changes ends (hooray!) with what turns out to be the best song on a bad album, “You Set the Scene.” Yes, Arthur Lee overplays his Johnny Mathis tendencies and the strings go over-the-top in the middle and yes, the lyrics make no sense when taken as a whole . . . oh, fuck it. I’m tired of trying to make something out of nothing.
I am amazed that a dull album with such an obvious lack of originality could be rated so highly, but I’ve always had a tendency to expect more from the human race than it deserves. After I wrote the review, a Baby Boomer left a comment describing Forever Changes as a satirical look at the hippie movement and all the silliness going on at the time. I decided to give it another spin and listen to it from that perspective and . . . well, maybe it’s the blonde effect, but I guess I’m just too fucking dense to hear the satirical nuances. Maybe the caked snot line was an attempt at parody, but if that’s the case, Arthur was a very heavy-handed satirist.
No, I’m not buying it. Forever Changes does belong on a list: my list of seriously overrated albums. Arthur Lee and company have now joined such luminaries as The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd on my mythical “Seriously Overrated Albums List.”
Congratulations, guys, and have a wonderful Fourth of July!